The archbishop watched his men carefully. “Dig faster!” he ordered. Not because he was cold, although the breeze that night could freeze even a flying bird, it was his fear that made him impatient. His hands shook with anger, causing the metal box and the chains that bound it to clang and clatter. Inside that box was a cursed book. He had locked it inside and had closed the box even tighter with chains, as if the tome could get out by itself. He was about to bury all of this deep in the ground, where neither animals nor rain could unearth it. This was his only option since the book was indestructible, at least for a man like the archbishop.
As a high-ranking priest of the Catholic Church, he had soldiers under his command and he controlled many villages and several cities. But that was not the kind of power required to destroy this book.
The archbishop was a clever man; he knew that anyone who possessed that power would never destroy the book. Instead they would read it and use it. He also knew that he wasn’t the first to try to conceal its evil. Each of his ancestors had tried but every time, the book had managed to resurface and make itself known to those with the will to use it.
“Not this time!” he thought.
And somehow he was right, because the book never made it out of that deep, dark hole. Such was not the case for its content though; it made itself available to a much larger audience, in a whole different form ( #ForbiddenBook ) .
Thomas checked his watch for the fifth time in the last twenty minutes, “She’s late,” he said.
“Rebecca is always late. She’s a girl,” said Matthew, without taking his eyes off the video game. He had been playing intently since he came to Tom’s house an hour ago.
That’s when the doorbell rang. Thomas went to the door.
Matthew heard him shout, “At last! You’re late!” He could also hear Rebecca explaining the reason for her delay but he didn’t pay any attention; he was sure it was a lame excuse. Rebecca was never on time. It was one of her numerous flaws that also included her incredibly poor taste in boyfriends and her lousy driving skills. But she also was, without a doubt, the best drummer he had ever played with. And that was the reason she was part of the band.
Thomas came alongside Matthew with Rebecca and had to forcibly switch off the computer screen to get Matthew to pay attention to what he was going to say.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I mean… guys. Tonight is probably the most important night in the history of our band.” He looked at his fellow band members to see if his words had any effect. They were listening, but without any sign of enthusiasm. He continued, nonetheless. “We’ve been playing together for over a year. We’re damn good musicians. We know that we are. But it’s just not working!”
“What the hell is not working?” Matthew interjected.
“Look,” Thomas said, “I started this band with an ambition to be the best. I don’t want to end my days as a bio-technician who sometimes plays guitar and sings in a band that nobody ever heard of. I want us to be heard of! Famous, get it? Rock stars! ‘Cause both of you know that we freaking deserve it!”
“I’m sorry, Tom,” said Rebecca. “But is this one of your “we need to work harder” talks? Because it’s not our fault, you know? Playing well is not enough. Music these days… it’s a marketing business.”
Matthew hated to admit it. “She’s right,” he said. “What can we do about it?”
Thomas went over to his desk, picked up a stack of printouts and put them on the table. It looked like a chapter of a book or a very long article. Matthew leaned over to read the title out loud: “The Book of the Seven Forbidden Wisdoms, Chapter One: Demon Summoning.” He looked up at Thomas. “Are you serious?”
“Yes,” Thomas replied, unshaken, “And I suggest that we try it.”
Matthew couldn’t help but raise his voice. “Sell our souls to a demon to become rock stars? Really? I don’t believe in any of this occult stuff, you know? And, I seriously cannot believe we are discussing this!”
“I do believe in the occult,” Rebecca exclaimed. She already had the printouts in her hand and had started to read.
Matthew couldn’t say why but her reaction hadn’t surprised him at all. “Tom, where did you find that shit?” he asked.
“On the internet. It was weird, actually. It kind of found me. I printed it, but I wasn’t able to go back to the website after that. I tried to trace it back through the history but nothing. Like, it just vanished.”
“Oh, my God, that’s spooky!” Rebecca whispered.
“It’s bullshit, that’s what it is!” Matthew shouted. “What have you been drinking? No, wait! What have you been smoking?”
“Nothing!” Thomas said. “You know how much I hate drugs!”
A heated discussion on the credibility and mysterious origins of the chapter ensued between Matthew and Thomas. But Rebecca wasn’t listening to them; she was too focused on reading. Already on the fifth page, she said, “Guys! It says we need to make a blood sacrifice!”
“Yes, I know,” Thomas replied. “That will be my guinea pig.”
“Mr. Muffins?” the other two exclaimed in unison.
“Poor thing!” Rebecca added.
“Guys, sadly, Mr. Muffins has osteocarcinoma,” Thomas stated matter-of-factly. Given the blank look on the faces of his friends, he added, “A deadly bone disease. He was diagnosed couple of weeks ago. I’m supposed to bring him to the vet the day after tomorrow for a lethal injection.”
Rebecca looked at the cage near the window. “Oh, my God! Poor Mr. Muffins! No wonder he’s lost so much fur lately.”
“So he’s going to die anyway, huh?” Matthew said. “Well, I certainly won’t be the one cutting the throat of that poor animal!”
“Don’t you dare ask me to do it! I hate the sight of blood,” Rebecca confessed.
“We weren’t going to ask you,” Matthew confirmed.
“I can do it,” Tom said. “I’m a biology major, after all. You can’t imagine how many small animals I’ve had to kill and dissect in school. And, I’ll put him to sleep with ethanol first.”
“So, you have this, this ethanol, in your house?” Matthew asked.
“Of course, in my medicine cabinet, as a disinfectant. You don’t?”
The other two looked at each other without bothering to say a thing. Most biology majors were somehow obsessed with first aid supplies and Tom was one of them.
Matthew sighted looked at Thomas “So we are really doing this, huh?”
“Yes, we are,” Thomas replied.
“Yes, we are” Rebecca acknowledged.
So they followed the described ritual to the letter, perfectly. But nothing happened.
They looked at each other for a moment, puzzled. Matthew was the first to break the silence. “I knew this was bullshit! I can’t believe I went through with this! Look at this mess!” Pointing the ritual table, he said, “Poor Mr. Muffins! With his throat cut and his blood all over the place, drawing strange pentagrams and…”
He hadn’t finished talking before the doorbell rang.
“Oh, no!” Thomas said, near panic. “I hope that’s not the neighbors!”
He jumped up and quickly trashed the bloodstained latex gloves. As he went to the door, he murmured, “What if it’s my girlfriend? That would be even worse!”
It wasn’t. Instead, it was a rather tall woman with long, dark hair and blue eyes. A slim and slender figure with pale skin, she looked fragile and beautiful. Thomas had never seen her before.
“May I help you?” he asked.
“I’m Elisabeth,” she said. “The demon you called.”
It took Thomas several minutes before he could gulp and say, “What?”
Elisabeth sighed. “I am this city’s demon of music. You guys called me, remember? So, are you going to let me in?”
“OK.” Thomas’ voice trembled. “Please come in.”
When he came back into the room with his guest, Matthew still hadn’t finished complaining but he stopped listing the reasons why this was a bad idea to ask, “Who the hell is she?”
“Uh… Guys, this is Elisabeth. She’s the demon we called.”
Neither Rebecca nor Matthew knew what to say. With their mouths wide open they looked from Elisabeth, to Thomas, then at each other.
Thomas judged it would be better to keep talking. “So, um, I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Thomas and these are the other two members of my band: Matthew plays keyboards and Becky is our drummer. I play guitar and do the vocals.”
Matthew blinked, trying to get ahold of himself. “This is bullshit man!”
“I wasn’t expecting this!” confessed Rebecca. “You look exactly like a human!”
“All demons do,” Elisabeth said. “What were you expecting?”
“Oh, I don’t know, something ugly with horns and goat legs!”
“Yeah with a little scraggly beard and sharp teeth, maybe,” Matthew added. “And you came to the door and even rang the bell!”
Elisabeth laughed. “OK, first of all, I don’t know any demon who looks like what you described. And, this is actually my first time being summoned so I am improvising a little. But I’ll take note your remarks and next time I’ll try something fancier.”
“Guys, enough with the stupid questions,” Thomas said. “Maybe we should get to the point.” Then, he turned to Elisabeth. “Do you know why we summoned you here?”
Elisabeth nodded, acknowledging that she did.
“So, how do we do this?” Matthew inquired.
“Are you going to ask us to play a song?” Rebecca asked.
“I don’t need to,” said Elisabeth. “I know how you play. I know how everyone plays in this city.”
They all looked at each other wanting to ask the same question. It was Rebecca who dared to speak first.
“So are we any good?”
“Yes, you are, indeed. You’re pretty darn good. I also like your band’s name: The Divine Vipers. Sounds good.” They were all relieved. The demon added, “You need a bass player, though. I don’t even have to be a demon of music to tell you that.”
“But I take care of the bass lines with my keyboard. You know, like The Doors,” said Matthew.
“That’s not enough!” Elisabeth snapped.
“Actually, we tried to recruit a bass player a while ago,” Thomas recalled. “But first, he wanted to date Becky and…”
“Even though I already had a boyfriend the time, plus, he was not my type at all!” Rebecca interjected.
“He left the band with, like, no other obvious reason,” Thomas continued. Then, after awhile, he tried to recruit Matt for another gig he was getting together.”
“Yeah,” Matthew said. “He sent me an email and I didn’t even give him the time of day. So, to make a long story short, we’ve got a sour taste in our mouths when it comes to bassists,”
“Don’t worry,” Elisabeth said “You won’t have to look for a bassist. I will send you one of my acolytes. Her name is Catherine and she’ll contact you tomorrow.”
“Cool! At least this one won’t get a crush on Becky!” Thomas laughed.
“Ahem,” said Elisabeth. “You need to start practicing. Catherine will already know all your songs and she’ll also help you create new ones. When you put out your first album, it will be an immediate hit. The deal is on until you get famous. After that, the deal is off and I won’t help you anymore. That is, unless you actually want to become my acolytes. But that’s a whole other story.”
“And what is the catch?” Matthew asked. “Because I’m sure there is one, right?”
“As long as you follow the instructions, there is no catch,” Elisabeth said. “But, I need to make sure that you understand the terms of a demon-summoning contract.”
“I read it right here,” said Rebecca, showing the printouts. “Only one contract with one demon at a time. The summoner has to fulfill the deed for which he requested help. For, us that means getting famous.”
“Yes,” Elisabeth confirmed. “Until you become famous, none of you can quit the band or stop playing music or die.”
“What?” the three of them shouted at the same time.
“How are we supposed to control that?” Matthew asked.
“I’m sure she means like “no suicide” right, Elisabeth?” asked Rebecca.
“No, I mean like really don’t die.”
“Then I’ll ask the same question as Matt,” Rebecca continued. “How are we supposed to control that?”
Elisabeth smiled. “You try. I think you’ve been doing it just fine up until now, so just continue.”
“But what if we fail?”
“If you die while you are under the contract, your soul becomes mine.”
They looked at each under, scared stiff.
“How can we know that you won’t kill us to get our souls?” Thomas asked.
“I can’t do that because we have a contract. Neither my acolytes nor I can kill you. We can’t ask anyone else to kill you, either.”
After some minutes of silence, Rebecca took a deep breath. “OK, so we’ll just be careful then, I guess.”
“Yeah, we weren’t planning on dying any time soon anyway,” Thomas added.
“And, Becky will start taking the bus,” Matthew said, stifling a smile.
Rebecca turned to him with a fierce look in her eyes. “Are you going to start criticizing my driving, again?”
“I’m sorry, Becky, but I have to side with Matt on this,” Thomas said, with a little shake of his shoulders.
This started an animated argument about who should do what to avoid a sudden death that Elisabeth needed to interrupt.
“Guys! I think you can argue about that later, am I right? It’s getting late and I have to go to work at the library tomorrow. Is there anything else you want to ask me before I leave?”
They took a minute to think. Thomas was the first to speak. “How can we contact you if we need to? Should we ask that Catherine person?”
“I have my ways to contact you if I need to and Catherine knows how to answer all the basic questions. But, if you want to talk to me in person, you’ll have to perform another summoning ritual.”
“Ewww,” Rebecca said. The others just looked at each other and took a deep breath.
After the demon left, the band took another hour or two to discuss what they had just done and to convince themselves that it was the right decision. Since it was late, they decided to just stay at Thomas’ place, too tired to leave.
Thomas put Mr. Muffins in a plastic zipper bag until he could bury him properly. The poor little guy would have to wait till then in the fridge. Right at that moment, Rebecca vowed not to eat anything that came out of his fridge.
Elisabeth took a detour before going back home, stopping at a gas station next to the mall. It was dark and deserted. When she got out of her car, dark figures leaked from the gas pumps and crawled in front of her; the oily imps of the city’s demon of cars.
“Where is your master?” she asked them.
“Right behind you!” a voice called out from the dark. A tall, bulky man with clothes covered in dark stains approached. “Hello, gorgeous. Need some gas?”
“Hello.” Elisabeth smiled tentatively. “Actually, I just wanted to talk.”
The demon’s flirty smile vanished. “Is it serious? Are you OK?”
“I guess,” Elisabeth said. “Have you ever been summoned?”
As he looked at her, his eyes widened. “No, have you?”
“Yes, I just was.”
The demon looked puzzled. “But demon-summoning is a forbidden wisdom!”
He thought for a while, then a smile came to his face. “Oh! This means the book has resurfaced – The Book of the Seven Forbidden Wisdoms!” He took her hand. “Tell me everything!”
Elisabeth tried not to mind that her hand was getting covered with oil. “It was a newbie rock band. Not more than a year old, but they’re quite good. They wanted to speed things up, I guess. I just signed a contract to make them famous.”
“Did you see the book?”
“No. There were only some printouts from the internet. They only had the first chapter, the one about demon summoning.”
He pondered this, clearly puzzled. Then, laughing, he suddenly exclaimed, “This is hilarious! The book has found a whole new way to get to people. It’s on the internet now, searching for willing souls!”
“But why only one chapter?”
“Think about it. People sitting in front of their computers don’t read things if they’re too long. You should know that better than me. You’re the librarian.”
“I admit that it makes sense.” Elisabeth agreed.
They stood silent for awhile. Then Elisabeth asked, “How will that affect the city or the others?”
The demon stopped laughing. “You mean the gods? They sure won’t like it.”
“Yes, I figured that. But does it affect the truce?”
He shook his head. “No, of course it doesn’t. But some of them must be very angry at the summoners right now.”
“Well let’s hope they’ll be okay.” Elisabeth smiled. “I guess the last thing the gods want is for me to have three freebie souls, so I don’t think they will kill them.”
“You’re right. But, who knows what else they might do.”
The sound of the doorbell woke the band up late the next morning. They leaped out of bed, filled with dread. After a couple of rings, the doorbell stopped and the banging began. This had to be Cindy, Thomas’ girlfriend – “the witch” according to Matthew, “the bitch” according to Rebecca. They even started to write a song about her, since those two words rhymed so perfectly, but the idea was vetoed by Thomas, probably thinking that he’d like to live another day.
Rebecca was the one who opened the door while the other two made sure there was no visible evidence of last night’s ritual. Cindy was furious at the sight of Becky at the door.
“What are you doing here?” she shouted, and pushed her aside as she made her way to Thomas’ room. “What the heck is she doing in your house?”
Then she saw Matthew. “Oh, so he’s here, too! I was wondering what the hell you could be up to!” Her tone was irritating, as usual. She paused, a fake smile on her face.
“Yesterday…” she started, and suddenly her eyes filled with anger, not tears. “Yesterday was our anniversary, Tom!”
Thomas stood, frozen. It was obvious that he had totally forgotten about it.
Matthew and Rebecca looked at him and said, “Ouch!” in unison. Then the arguing started.
“Instead of being with me, you were hanging out with your friends!” Cindy ranted.
“We had to have an urgent band meeting, honey. Besides, it’s not like we had planned anything, you and I.”
“Oh yeah? So you admit they are more important! You were supposed to call me and invite me somewhere special! You didn’t even answer your phone!”
Thomas looked at his phone, “When did you call? I switched it off at like 2 am, before I went to sleep.”
At the exact moment he switched his phone on, it rang. Cindy, enraged, grabbed it from his hand and answered it, “What?”
Thomas tried to take his phone back but she didn’t let him. Instead she moved away. She looked up and asked, “Who the heck is Catherine?”
Thomas stared at his band mates, puzzled. It took them less than a second to realize who she actually was.
“Oh, my God! Catherine!” he exclaimed. He tried to grab the phone again but Cindy was furious.
“Listen to me! I don’t know who the hell you are but stay away from my boyfriend or I’ll scratch your eyes out!” she yelled and hung up.
“Cindy, what do you think you’re doing?” Thomas wrestled his phone out of her hand and started to look for the last number that called.
“Thomas Anderson! Are you cheating on me?”
Before he could say anything, Rebecca’s phone rang. “Hi! Oh, hello, Catherine! We were expecting to hear from you. I’m really sorry for what just happened; Tom is having some girlfriend issues. Ah, OK, let me ask them.”
She covered the phone with her hand. “6 pm at Billy’s Bar near the campus. Is that OK?” They all nodded. “Alright then. See you tonight, Catherine! Bye!”
Before Thomas’ girlfriend crisis grew any bigger, they explained to Cindy that Catherine was their new bass player, not Tom’s mistress. But the arguing increased, nonetheless. Rebecca and Matthew went to their separate homes to get ready for class, leaving the couple still fighting in Tom’s flat.
When Matthew came to Billy’s Bar at ten minutes before 6, he was utterly shocked to see Rebecca already there, sitting at a table.
“How come you’re not late?” he asked “You’re early, even!”
“I came straight here after I got out of my class,” she said. “And, for your information, I am not always late.”
Matthew shrugged his shoulders and sat down. “By the way, what did she sound like on the phone?”
“Well, she has a very nice voice,” Rebecca said.
“Cool! I hope she’s good looking!”
Rebecca smiled. “Why? You know we forbid dating within the band.”
“That’s not my point at all! Although that demon acolyte stuff is pretty hot. My point is, it would be a huge plus for the band if we had two hot chicks.”
Rebecca raised an eyebrow. “Oh, yeah? So you think I’m hot?”
Thomas showed up right then, saving Matthew from having to answer that last question. The couple’s quarrel and the requisite make-up sex that followed had taken a little too long. He’d barely had time to get rid of Cindy and take a shower before rushing over. “Sorry, guys. I wanted be here early but…”
“That’s OK. We just arrived ourselves,” said Matthew.
Catherine, who joined them at 6 pm sharp, happened to be average looking but surprisingly tall, with a nice, quiet voice and a taste for good beer. She didn’t talk much but had informed opinions about things. They discussed the rehearsal schedule and wrote down a “to do” list that they named “The Great Battle Plan.”
In her student flat, sitting at her computer, Cindy was full of rage. For a month, Thomas hadn’t really talked to her. OK, he had talked, but not more than one word at a time. After the last fight about their anniversary, Cindy had at first felt guilty. Days passed and it had been rehearsal after rehearsal. Concerts at bars became more frequent and much more crowded. Thomas became less and less available.
The band was invited to play in the summer festival. Cindy didn’t understand how they pulled that off since normally, it was only for pros. There, she had seen it: the band had real fans. Some people were even there just to see them.
She had all the privileges of the girlfriend of the band’s front man but he was barely talking to her. And, oh! He wasn’t the only one singing now. The new bass player was accompanying him on the vocals! When Cindy saw how those two exchanged glances up on the stage, she understood. She understood it all, everything that son of a bitch was up to. She was right from the beginning. It was that Catherine girl.
Now, she didn’t feel one ounce of guilt about what she did that day. There couldn’t have been a more plausible explanation. With a grimace and a silly voice, she repeated what Thomas had said: “Oh, we’re fed up with bass players. We won’t try to recruit one anymore. Matt will do the bass lines.” My ass! she thought. After being so adamant about it, miss softy voice on the phone waltzes in and everybody changes their mind. She’d just taken a look at the new Divine Vipers web page and in the promo photo, Thomas was standing right next to that bass player bitch. Men were all the same!
Outside Cindy’s window, two lesser spirits were watching and listening. One of them was Hector, the servant of the city’s god of laundromats. A short, skinny guy, he owned the laundromat two blocks away. The other was Beebe, the spirit who served the city’s god of fast food. He had a large paper cone filled with French fries in his hand; the two spirits were eating from it while they talked.
“It would be so easy to get her to cause trouble, you know,” said Beebe, in between bites.
“Agreed, but she’s useless. Even if she actually caused trouble, he’ll just dump her and get a new girlfriend. At the end of the year, he’ll be famous. And he can have all the girls he wants.”
Beebe used a pair of tiny binoculars to spy on Cindy’s computer screen through the window. “Things are working out quite nicely for this band, right? How are we letting that happen? If this goes any further, people will realize that they can do things with the help of demons. That could lead the way to demon worship. Our masters have worked their asses off to make everyone believe that demons are evil.”
“I know, but not all the gods agree with that. You know, some of them don’t even care if demons do stuff like this and they refuse to help stop it.”
“What?” Beebe shouted “Like who?”
“Hmm. Let me see. There’s the god of commercial ads…”
“That guy! I never liked him anyway. Now I’m not regretting that I installed Adblock on my browser.” They laughed.
“As you know, we can’t kill those band members or force them to break their contract. That would mean freebie souls to demons,” Hector continued. “So, we decided to sabotage the demon’s work, making it so that everything goes wrong for the band even though they get demons’ help.”
Hector pointed his finger at the last fry. When Beebe nodded his OK, Hector took it and continued. “Lilith was in charge of it. You know, the white spirit who serves the god of coincidences.”
“Oh, I know that one. The air elemental. She’s strong!” Beebe said and summoned another cone of fries.
Hector immediately took one. “Not these days!” he said, chewing noisily. “Everything she planned got sabotaged.”
Beebe’s eyes opened wide. “That has to be the job of the demon of opportunities! That Jason guy! He’s her ultimate rival.”
“Nope. It wasn’t him.”
“To sabotage summer festival concert, Lilith wanted to cause the sound truck to crash. You know? No equipment, no sound. The festival would be canceled and the band wouldn’t be able to play. She had planned a smash up between the truck and a drunk driver at a particular crossroads. But the drunk driver crashed his car in the street, just minutes before he got to the crossroads. And the truck driver didn’t even notice a thing.”
“So it was the demon of road accidents, that creepy Travis guy,” Beebe said with his mouth full.
“Not really. Later on, some pixies of the city cameras reported that the drunk driver had crashed his car because he saw a ghost in the middle of the street, the ghost of some old woman.”
“That’s when Lilith confessed that not long ago, she killed a young woman who was suspected to have an ancestor ghost. And this ancestor, when she was still alive, was a sorceress!” Hector paused to see the effect his words had on his friend. As he expected, Beebe remained speechless.
“And that’s not all of it, my friend! Lilith also confessed that when she killed that young woman, she also killed an African Loa of sorcery in the process.”
“Oh, my oily, fatty goodness!” Beebe screamed. “How much deeper in trouble can one spirit get?”
They both started to laugh loudly. Cindy noticed the two freaks outside her window and closed her curtains and the laughter stopped. I wish those creeps would take a hike, she thought.
“So, I guess Lilith is out of business,” Beebe said. “But where do we go from here?”
“First we need to find that forbidden book.. We’ve got to restrict people’s access to it!”
“I know, but we searched that Thomas guy’s house already. It’s not there.”
Hector took a minute to think. “Maybe, but he sure knows where it is.”
While they were discussing it, their rivals were taking action.
Thomas looked at his friend, exasperated. “Matt! How come every time you come to my house you get stuck on that stupid videogame?”
Matthew didn’t take his eyes off the screen. “You say ‘stupid’ but you have it on your computer,” he responded, coolly.
“Duh! You’re the one who installed it!”
“What are you guys yelling about?” Rebecca asked. She sat on Tom’s bed and started to open her bag.
“How the hell did you get in here?” Thomas shouted.
“Your front door is wide open… Again!”
Thomas swore under his breath and stomped out of the room. The front door slammed.
When he came back, Matthew asked, “Are you sure somebody didn’t break in?”
“I don’t know. I asked myself the same question but nothing’s missing in the house.” He looked at Rebecca and asked, “What’s that?”
Rebecca proudly showed him the book she had just taken out of her bag. Either it was really old or it had been skillfully disguised to seem like it was. Rebecca loved that kind of thing. On the front cover was written, “The Book of Good Advice.”
“Where did you get this?” Thomas asked and Rebecca started to explain.
“I was at home, trying to figure out that tricky rhythm Catherine showed us the other day when the doorbell rang. When I opened the door, I saw the cutest guy…”
She said “cute” by accentuating the “u” in a manner that Matthew hated. He grimaced.
“He said I was chosen out of, I don’t know how many subscribers to that fashion magazine I read, and that this was a huge opportunity for me,” she continued.
“So, he sold you that book,” Matthew said.
“Yes, but it was so cheap. He practically gave it to me!”
“But you needed to sign something that says that each month they will offer you a bunch of other books and magazines and you will have to buy some of them?”
“No!” Rebecca said. “He just offered me the book and he was ultra-handsome so I bought it. And, it seems very interesting.”
Thomas took the book to have a closer look. “Did you read it?”
“No, I haven’t opened it yet. I wanted to show you guys first.”
Thomas opened the book to a page that had only one sentence: “Mind the ticking clock.”
“What does that mean?” he wondered.
Matthew took the book from him. “Let me see it.”
He also opened it to a random page. “Look behind the mirror.” He started laughing. “This is bullshit, Becky! This thing is worse than a bunch of fortune cookies or newspaper horoscopes.”
“No, it is not!” Rebecca said, and grabbed the book. “Give it back!”
She also looked at a random page and frowned. The page read: “Duck… Now!”
A rock bounced off the window frame with a bang. Rebecca barely dodged it as it flew over her head. Thomas ran to the window but there was no one out on the street.
“What the hell was that?” Matthew shouted.
“I don’t know,” Thomas said. He found the rock under the table. There was a paper wrapped around it. “There’s a note on it, guys” he said.
“8 pm at Waterman’s. Don’t bring the acolyte girl. Otherwise more people will get hurt.”
They looked at each other.
“This rock was really meant to land on your head, Becky. Thank goodness you have good reflexes!” Thomas exclaimed.
“It is not my reflexes, if you ask me,” Rebecca said. She showed them the page in the book.
The room fell silent. Thomas was the first to speak.
“We are ‘way out of our league, guys! I’m calling Catherine!”
They all agreed.
On the phone, Catherine explained to them that since they signed the contract they were haunted by gods and protected by demons. So far everything had gone well, thanks to Elisabeth’s numerous connections. But, unfortunately, it seemed that the divine crew had a little change in plans and had become more aggressive. She thought that going to the meeting at Waterman’s was a bad idea but that not going was worse. Finally, she reassured them that none of the gods or their servants could kill them as long as they were bound by the contract.
“That’s it? That’s what she said?”
“Yes, Matt, that’s it. So, we are going,” said Thomas.
“Won’t kill us, my ass! They just threw a rock at my head!”
“I guess that was only meant to warn you. Don’t worry, Becky.”
“Easy for you to say. What did Catherine say about the book?”
“She never heard of it. But she says it sounds like demon craft. Oh! She also had some good news! We’re signing with a label for a five track album! She’ll send me the details in an email.”
That nearly made them forget about the dreaded meeting at 8.
Waterman’s happened to be a nearly deserted bar with an average age of forty-plus. The band stood in the doorway, hesitantly. The bartender stared at them for a second and beckoned them inside.
Matthew leaned over to Thomas and whispered, “I’m not sure if this is such a good idea, Tom.”
Thomas walked towards the bar. “OK, guys. We’ll just relax, get a beer, chill out and listen to what they have to say.”
“I’m not even sure I want a beer,” Matthew said. “What if there’s a god of alcoholic beverages?”
Rebecca tried to smile. “Well, if there is one, I’m sure he loves you.”
“No, I don’t!” said the bartender. “I don’t fancy any of you!”
They looked at him, shocked.
“Do you little idiots know why I summoned you here?”
They shook their heads to show that they didn’t.
“Of course, you don’t,” said the bartender. He put down the glass he was drying and looked straight at the band. “The key to success is, and has always been, hard work and patience. But there’ll always be spoiled souls like you who just want to cut corners. Am I right?”
“We never meant to harm anyone! We just wanted to….”
“Shut up, boy!”
Thomas obeyed. The bartender headed to a door behind the bar. “Follow me.”
They looked at each other, unsure of what to do. But there was no other option, so they obeyed. The bartender opened the door and entered. An obviously drunken man stopped them before they could go any further. “This is a no cell phone area,” he slurred. “Give me your phones.”
“Did you expect we’d forget about the demon of cell phones? No demon stuff allowed down there.”
Unwillingly, they let him take their phones. He switched them off, one by one, and put them in a box under the bar.
The door led to a room with a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. The whole place seemed like something out of a ’40’s mafia movie. The bartender was waiting for them with several other unsavory characters. Thomas recognized the guy who ran the laundromat near Cindy’s house.
“You see,” the bartender said, “We have some kind of a dilemma here. We cannot let you succeed. But we can’t force you to stop either, not without handing your poor souls over to the demons. So we came up with a solution. We’ll will purge you from your contract using our powers. Once that’s done, you will hand us the book. Even trade.”
“Why would we do that?” Matthew shouted.
“Because, my poor boy, once we get out of that contract we will actually be able to kill you, and we will definitely do so if you don’t give us the book!”
“Please, don’t do that!” Thomas said. “We can’t give you the book! I simply found one chapter on the internet and then the whole website vanished!”
The bartender looked at his friends: “Let’s start the purging ritual. We’ll deal with that later. Lock them in separate rooms. the contract will be more vulnerable if they are separated.”
The band members were shoved into separate rooms. They heard the clicks of the doors locking behind them.
Thomas was in what seemed to be the bar’s stock room. It had a back door. He grinned and took a hairpin from his bandanna. Cindy was always complaining about those hairpins. He knew how to pick a lock; he had learned it from the internet and had practiced on several occasions. But, he was devastated when he realized that the door was locked with a digital code. His hairpin, of course, was of no use.
He squatted down on his heels and started to think. He could hear the gods and their cohorts chanting some sort of ritual in another room. Soon all this would be over. His band, his dreams…everything. Why couldn’t they just let him realize his dreams? There was nothing evil in that. He wasn’t going to let them get away with it! Thomas had gone too far for that.
He stood up and tried to think. He needed to act fast. He could hear a clock ticking, and with every second, the gods were getting further into their ritual. Then he looked up on the wall and he saw the clock. It wasn’t ticking correctly, as if it was skipping a beat. As he listened more carefully, he realized that the clock wasn’t actually skipping a beat. It’s ticking a waltz! he thought. That’s when he remembered Rebecca’s book. “Mind the ticking clock.”
He rushed to the lock’s key pad and typed 3 and then 4.
The numbers turned green and the clock’s ticking changed to a different rhythm. Thomas listened carefully and typed again. 6, 8.
The lock clicked open and Thomas rushed outside. He needed to find a way to free his friends. But how? He couldn’t call for help; he didn’t have his phone. He tried to remember the layout of the place and where the other two rooms were. Maybe he could break in somehow. As he turned around the corner of the building, he saw Matthew crawling out of a small window.
“Matt! Thank goodness you managed to get out!”
“Yeah, barely,” he said, indicating the crowbar in his hand. “I found this behind the mirror. I managed to pry the bars off the window with it.”
“We need to get Becky out of there!”
In Rebecca’s room, there was no back door or window. It was dark and damp. She could hear rats squeaking somewhere close by. She felt along the wall and found a light switch. The room was full of boxes, both wooden and metal. She took “The Book of Good Advice” out of her bag and opened it. There was a sentence in an unknown foreign language. I’m sunk, she thought.
She tried reading it out loud, phonetically. Suddenly, a fire-burst came out of nowhere, runic shapes and pentagrams lit on the floor and danced around each other. Then the flames disappeared as quickly as they had come and she wasn’t alone in the room anymore.
“Was this entrance better?” Elisabeth asked. “Since you guys thought that coming in by the front door was lame, I’ve been practicing.”
“I don’t care about that right now!” Rebecca shouted, her voice trembling. “Get me out of here, please! There are strange men in the other room with the god of alcoholic beverages and they’re doing a ritual to get us out of the contract.”
Elisabeth’s expression became serious. “Well, that’s a problem,” she said, as she looked around, “ I don’t know how you managed to call me here without a blood sacrifice. This place is a temple and I don’t have much power here. ”
“Well, that’s just great!” Rebecca said.
“You need to do something from which I can channel some power,” Elisabeth said.
“I don’t know, play music?”
Rebecca relaxed a little. “OK,” she said. “Actually, there are lots of things I can play music with in here.” She started a rhythm by tapping on the wooden boxes.
“Nothing!” Thomas shouted, shaking the blood off the crowbar. He looked at the slashed rat at his feet and shouted again. “Nothing! We did a blood sacrifice and drew the runes and said the words exactly like the last time but nothing! Why didn’t she come?”
Matthew looked around. “Maybe because you chose the sickest rat around? The poor thing is missing a leg and everything!”
“Well, physiologically, it was in a much better shape than Mr. Muffins, you know!”
Matthew motioned to him to be quiet “Do you hear that?”
“What?” Thomas asked. Then he heard it. “Drums?”
A yellow light lit up on the bar’s wall in the shape of a door. Rebecca and Elisabeth emerged. Matthew leaped on Rebecca to hug her.
“Matt! That’s sweet, but you’re squeezing me!”
He backed off, embarrassed.
Elisabeth looked at the dead and bloody rat. “So there was a blood sacrifice, after all! I knew it,” she said. She looked at the band. “We need to get you out of here. They’re still concentrating on their ritual, but now that you escaped, it won’t work. But, let’s not risk staying around. I’ll drive you guys home.”
The demon of music’s car was an old junker; the doors creaked, the warning lights were dim and the radio was broken. For someone who heard the entire city’s music all the time, however, the lack of a radio was not really a problem.
She pointed to the glove box and asked Thomas to open it. Their cell phones were inside. He gave the Hello Kitty Nokia to Rebecca, the blue Samsung to Matthew and pocketed his own.
“Oh, you got them back! Thank you!” Rebecca said.
“How did you manage that?” Matthew asked.
“I have a lot of friends in this city, you know?” Elisabeth replied. “Especially among demons, like the demon of cell phones, the demon of opportunities, the demon of mechanical disorders… a lot.”
“Oh, crap!” Thomas shouted. “Cindy called 20 times!”
While he dialed his girlfriend’s number, his fellow band members were mocking him. She didn’t answer.
Elisabeth stopped her car in front of Thomas’ house. “Stay together tonight,” she said. “I ordered Catherine to wait for you here. We’ll make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
As they walked towards the house, they could hear Cindy yelling. She was so full of anger that she didn’t even hear them come in. Catherine did, though.
“Thank you so much for finally coming back, guys,” she said. “I was starting to get sick of all the bitch talk!”
Cindy was out of control. Thomas hadn’t answered his phone so she had come to his house. She found Catherine there, who had simply walked in through the unlocked door. (Thomas still hadn’t repaired it.)
Cindy didn’t want to believe that was just a coincidence that Catherine was there. Now, she was thoroughly convinced that Thomas was cheating on her. With that, another round of fighting had started.
Rebecca looked at Matthew with an exasperated glance. “I’m a hundred percent sure that if, at this precise moment, Tom opens my advice book, he’ll read ‘Dump her!’” she said. They laughed.
After nearly an hour of ranting and raging, Cindy left. And she never came back.
The noise from the crowd was overwhelming, even in the dressing room.
“Are you guys stressed?”
“No, we are not, Matt,” Rebecca said, touching up her mascara. “At least not more than we were the last five times you asked!”
Thomas and Catherine chuckled.
“OK, I admit I am,” Matthew said. “Maybe I should have another beer?”
“I’m sorry, Matt” Catherine cautioned. “You really shouldn’t have any more. You’ve already had two and that’s your limit. Rules are rules.”
“Leave him alone, Catherine,” Rebecca said. “He’s just stressed out because he doesn’t have a videogame in his hands.”
“Do you guys realize there’s a full house out there?” Thomas asked.
“Well, that’s not helping the stress, Tom!” said Matthew.
“No, I mean we did it! We’re rock stars! Half the people there have Divine Vipers t-shirts on! They all have our album and they’ll be singing right along with us!”
Catherine beamed. The band got in a circle and joined hands. “Let’s rock!” they shouted and went on stage.
In addition to a venue packed full of people, fans who couldn’t make it were watching the concert online. One of them was none other than Cindy. She watched her screen without emotion, just determination. She glanced at her printer and took a sheet from the top of the stack of paper she had just printed. It read: “The Book of the Seven Forbidden Wisdoms, Chapter Two: Curse.”