When bored housewives needed poltergeists purged from their homes, or garden spirits banished, they normally contacted the local city ghostbusting agency, ran by the Cleary sisters. When people required serious exorcising, they contacted A & A, Inc.
Akiva and Ahmed stepped out of their van in front of the thirteen-story building. The nervous landlord just handed them the key to the penthouse and scampered away. Akiva looked at the bleached plaque nailed above the entrance. It read, 13 Elm St. Almost too poetic to be true.
They entered the elevator in silence and listened to some amateur radio station chirping in the ceiling speaker as the box of metal whoomed upwards, toward the apartment that needed cleansing. Ahmed brushed lint from his coat. As the elevator slowed with a lazy moan, Akiva fished his smartphone from the back pocket of his trousers and began patting the greasy screen with his index finger.
Ahmed frowned. “What are you doing?”
Akiva shrugged. “There’s this new ghostbusting app I wanted to check out. They say it can detect -”
Ahmed snorted. “Put that away. Don’t be silly.”
“I hope one day you’ll learn to appreciate technology,” Akiva complained.
His friend hefted the heavy leather bag he was carrying, and it jangled, full of metal and wood and sharp objects. “This is technology.”
They stepped out into the hallway. The familiar stench of the underworld assailed their nostrils. The decorative plants lining the walls were all wilted. Akiva sighed. Then again, he was here because Ahmed and he were the best in their business.
Some might argue that living in the Western world had its perks, provided you were born and raised the right way. Akiva and Ahmed had found an altogether different twist to the free market when they entered the exorcism business. Most of their clientele, both human and otherwise, was attuned to the rules and nuances of their surroundings. As foreigners, both in body and spirit, Akiva and Ahmed enjoyed an unparalleled advantage of being immune to the entire plethora of curses, omens, superstitions, and powers that affected their colleagues. In fact, they were surprised there weren’t more of their fellow countrymen in the business. It was such a lucrative profession.
Akiva knew that several other rival paranormal agencies had turned down this job, for the simple fact it was too ominous. They found it too risky. For A & A, Inc., which was celebrating its thirteenth anniversary this November, today’s mission was an excellent early New Year bonus.
Ahmed was wearing a plasma stethoscope and trying to figure out where the ghost might be. His expression said he couldn’t hear anything. Akiva knew what this meant. Their job was not a ghost. Or a spirit. Something nastier.
Akiva unlocked the door to the penthouse and pushed it open with his foot. A fresh wave of stench wafted into the corridor. They waited. Nothing happened. Ahmed slid down the wall and took a hand mirror from his tool bag, bolted it on top of a stick, and began carefully inspecting the interior. Akiva sat on the opposite side, itching for his smartphone.
Ahmed cocked his head, pointing toward the right side of the apartment. Akiva peered quickly. He thought he had glimpsed something big and dark. Then, a shower of feces greeted them. Black, steaming droppings of underworld-like persuasion spattered the wall opposite them.
“Rude,” Ahmed whispered. He reached for his hatchet.
“Wait, let me try,” Akiva insisted. “You in there!” he called in Latin. “Identify yourself!”
“We just want to talk,” Ahmed cooed in Arameic, staring at the razor-sharp edge of his weapon. Still no answer.
“Maybe it’s deaf?” Akiva suggested. What other ancient languages did they know?
“I can speak English, thank you,” the thing inside said, its voice rusty and deep.
Akiva was surprised. The underworld creature actually had a pretty decent accent. “All right. So here’s the deal. We got a complaint from the landlord that one of his tenants is stinking up the place. Now, we come here and discover you lurking about. You know the rules. This isn’t your world. We give you this one chance, you crawl back to your world, and we won’t add you to our resume.”
Fresh feces came in response.
Ahmed sucked his teeth. “I guess we will be chopping some hell flesh today.”
Akiva did not like violence, but he had to agree with his friend. “All right then. Let’s do it your way.”
Ahmed grinned. But he did not charge the room. That would be risky and, most of all, unnecessary. Instead, he reached into his wonderbag of talismans and tools and grabbed a stun grenade. It was the classic formula, with holy water, garlic and cricket powder. Almost casually, he pulled the safety pin out with his teeth, and rolled it into the apartment. A moment later, there was a loud bang, and the corridor began to smell like a neighbor’s cooking.
From inside the penthouse, laughter erupted, throaty, hissing, condescending. “Holy water, you must be kidding!”
Akiva did not like this. Underworld things, even the toughest ones, never took lightly to stun grenades. The laughter continued, followed by some grumbling in the Hell tongue. To him, it sounded like a Cockney version of ancient Greek, but most people would swear it was pig Latin. Then, the creature lashed a curse at them. For a Christian, it might have been lethal. The two of them just let the ugly words slide off their ears harmlessly. They gave the monster the same dose of its earlier treatment – and laughed back.
Deep silence told them they had just scored a point.
“Who are you!” the creature growled after a while.
“We’ll tell you if you tell us,” Ahmed taunted.
“My name is Azazel,” it admitted.
Akiva snorted. “Azazel? The Azazel?”
Something snapped, like a piece of furniture. “No. Just Azazel.”
“That’s a bit corny,” Ahmed said.
“Really? So I suppose you only have one person named Jesus in your human world, right?”
Ahmed scrunched his face. “Well, he’s got a point.”
“It’s a very popular name in Hell,” Azazel rambled. “I have two cousins and a grandfather called Azazel.”
“Good for you,” Ahmed offered, getting bored.
“But we’ve got many other names, too,” Azazel preached. “We even have one Texan demon named Billy Bob.”
Akiva chortled. “Really?”
“No, not really, I was messing with you, human.”
Ahmed giggled so hard that a snot bubble plopped out if his nostrils. “That was funny!”
Akiva was not amused. “And what are you, Azazel?”
The thing inside was silent for a moment. “I’m a demon, Second Cycle.”
“Serious shit,” Ahmed whispered, sobering up. He was already looking for another weapon he might use next against the creature.
“Why are you here, Azazel?” Akiva asked, trying to keep the thing busy.
“What is this, fifty-nine questions?”
Akiva considered correcting the demon, but a flat stare from Ahmed told him it would be pointless. “No, just curiosity.”
Azazel made a slobbering sound as it crunched some more furniture. “I’m here because a demon’s got to work for a living, you know. Can’t fault me for that.”
Akiva pursed his lips. No, he could not. “And how come our stun grenade didn’t have any effect on you?”
The demon growled again. “Because I’m an atheist.”
Akiva felt his brows shoot high, high up on his forehead. Even Ahmed looked shocked, but only for a heartbeat. Soon enough, he had unfurled his entire roll of tools, and was going through them carefully, trying to figure out what might work against an unbelieving demon.
“Atheist?” Akiva chatted it up. “Isn’t that a paradox?”
“Let’s say I’m having some rather heated debates with my demon friends,” Azazel explained.
Ahmed lifted a stake of Hungarian yew. He shook his head and put it away. He reached for an Irish cross. His fingers touched the metal, but Akiva knew it would be useless. A vial of Voodoo beads, no that would not work either. Suddenly, he snapped his fingers triumphantly. He showed a copy of Karl Marx’s Manifesto to Akiva.
“Stop playing,” Akiva hissed, amused and annoyed at the same time.
How do we kill an atheist demon? Ahmed mouthed. A claymore?
Akiva’s mind was racing. In the Western world, the absolute majority of ghosts, spirits, vampires, weres, and other beasts were finely attuned to Christianity. And that worked both ways. The monsters were susceptible to whatever the folklore claimed, and humans were vulnerable to whatever the religion and stories offered in return. Ahmed’s and his unique advantage of not being affected by these powers meant little now. This was going to be tough.
“You asked me so many questions,” Azazel interrupted his train of thoughts. “Now answer some of mine.”
“Who are you that you do not care for the Curse of Jericho?”
Akiva briefly reminisced on the thirteen years of work in the paranormal business. Oh, how much he had learned – and unlearned. So many stereotypes, most of them true, others totally ridiculous. “We are Akiva and Ahmed, nice to meet you, Azazel.”
“I have a cousin named Akiva,” the demon offered.
“Really?” Akiva said before he could stop himself.
Azazel laughed, the flap of shredded meat and stone grinding. “No, you fool.” There was a scraping noise. “This means I will have to kill you with my claws.”
Ahmed stood up and readied his hatchet, breathing deeply. “So it begins.”
Suddenly, there was a muted sound, tin-tin, tin-tin, and Akiva’s pocket began to vibrate. “Wait, wait. I have an SMS.”
Ahmed was fuming. “What? Now?”
Akiva grimaced. “I really have to take this.” Still, just in case, he unshouldered his shotgun. Awkwardly, with one hand, he slid the phone lock off, then read the message. He blinked hard, and read it again. “Ahmed.”
His friend was leaning against the wall, body pivoted for the best swing. Inside the apartment, the demon was stirring, sidling toward them. “Not now.”
“Ahmed,” Akiva repeated. “We’ve been fired.”
“What?” His hatched dropped half-way down. “What!” There was more noise from the penthouse, urgent now. “You, just wait a minute! Hold on.” Azazel was on the opposite side of the wall, they could feel it, the stench, the heat. This was going to be bloody.
“Why?” it asked.
“We have a delicate situation,” Ahmed explained. “Know what, if you do us this little favor, I promise I won’t skin you and mount your hide on my office wall.”
“You’ve got some spirit, human,” the demon roared. “I’m waiting.”
Ahmed vectored his fury at Akiva. “What do you mean, fired?”
Akiva slid the phone back into his pocket. “Fired. We got laid off. That was a message from Sid. Turns out, with the global recession and all, he can’t sponsor us anymore, he says. So he’s terminating the contract. In fact, he’s terminating all our contracts.”
Ahmed turned livid. “He can’t do that! Damn.”
Akiva shrugged. A & A, Inc. was an extremely successful business, but the rent and insurance were so expensive these days. What with his unfortunate gambles on the stock market, they had been forced to seek capital from hedge funds. The problem was, how did you explain the exorcism business to people with a major in economy?
“I’m hungry, humans,” Azazel complained.
“What do we do?” Akiva said, dejected. Suddenly, he was not in the mood for killing demons anymore.
Ahmed shrugged, but then his eyes lit up with mischief. Akiva didn’t like that.
“We could probably go into the stunt business with my friend Alan,” Akiva muttered, but he noticed Ahmed was not listening.
“Hey, Azazel,” Ahmed called. “I have a proposal for you.”
Akiva felt a tinge of fear down his spine. “What are you doing?”
“How about partnering with us?” Ahmed plowed on, ignoring him.
“We did not discuss this!”
Ahmed made a bland face. “Well, after your Wall Street fiasco, do you expect me to discuss financial decisions with you?”
Azazel’s tail flicked into view, then was gone. “Is this some kind of a trick, human? Are you trying to buy time before I destroy you?”
“Listen there. We can try to kill each other. Now, we’ve got coats covered in silver, we have woolen socks, my friend Akiva has a gun full of gold bullets, and I have a diamond-edge ax. You probably bring eight hundred pounds of rotten flesh and teeth long enough to carve bread. That’s what we call a fair battle. But there’s no reason why we should bleed today.”
The demon did not speak for a full minute. “I’m listening.”
“You’re an atheist, you say,” Ahmed continued. “So you have no real beef with anyone and anything in this place. You’re just here to cause trouble, ’cause that’s what you were ordered to do, right? Now, me and my friend Akiva got ourselves into a bit of predicament. We just got unemployed, and that puts a different cast on our presence here.”
“So what are you saying, human?”
Ahmed rolled the hatchet in his palm. “I’m saying. We don’t need to be killing each other. How about we strike a deal?”
Akiva’s anger dissipated. He realized this was probably not the most honorable way of concluding a paranormal mission, but then, firing people via SMS wasn’t the greatest act of chivalry, either. His friend had just birthed a wild, crazy idea. He decided to cooperate. “We could work together. The three of us. Triple A.” And Akiva knew that he had just coined the name for their new venture. “You will come into our world now and then, and we will be there to sort of banish you. We do it with style and elegance, and none’s the wiser.”
“What it is in there for me?” Azazel protested.
Akiva rallied on. “You will get your fair share of cows and goats.”
“I want human flesh!” the demon snapped.
Ahmed stepped carefully into the doorway. Akiva was ready to fire his shotgun. “Really? You really like it?” Azazel did not lash at them.
They could see the monster now. It was tall and thin, made of sinew and black scaly hide, with a long tail. Its head was too big for its body, but they never doubted the immense, lethal strength that Azazel possessed. The demon was watching them with its slitted eyes carefully, as if trying to decide whether this was an elaborate trick to separate its head from the rest of it.
Azazel sighed, and it sounded like a badger coughing. “No, not really.”
Ahmed pointed. “Exactly. Human flesh is too stringy, right?”
“I like rampaging. I like destroying things and defecating.”
Akiva did not lower his aim yet. “We can arrange that. No problem with that.”
Ahmed entered the apartment, and Akiva skipped a beat. But his friend had a way with monsters. “What do you say, Azazel?”
The demon raised one of its paws. Both Akiva and Ahmed involuntarily stepped back. “I get to ruin at least one home each time!”
“And shit as much as you want,” Ahmed supplied amicably.
“C’mon. Do you really want to die?” Akiva tried his best sad, tired voice.
Azazel changed its stance. Suddenly, it was no longer menacing, just frightfully stinky. “Fine, humans. Ahmed and Akiva. We make a pact.”
And so they called it the Pact of the Thirteenth Floor on 13 Elm St, Great View. Akiva, Ahmed and Azazel founded AAA Ltd., and despite the severe turndown in global economy, their new business flourished, with triple A rating. This little inside joke made Akiva chuckle with glee every time he mentioned the company’s name to his customers. The demon got its chance to defecate in houses and public buildings and shred the furniture, while the two ghostbusters, demon hunters, monster slayers, and exorcists par excellence paid off all their debts, and soon were having a new office at the top floor of one of the most lucrative skyrises.
Some would call their affair amoral, and an exploitation of the market, but Akiva and Ahmed felt they were no better or worse than any other start-up company. Since no one got killed, only some interior design ruined, they felt it was a fair deal. They celebrated their thirteenth anniversary at Jabesh-Gilead, where Azazel did a quick reenactment of the ancient battle, and then Akiva and Ahmed flew to Tahiti for two weeks of suntanning.
All in all, they felt, their luck had turned for the better, and only because of his smartphone, Akiva claimed. Ahmed would never admit that, but he slowly warmed up to technology, and even upgraded his own phone to a touch device. Nevertheless, he always lugged his bag of tools around, because you never knew when you might not be that lucky and really meet trouble. After all, exorcism was a tough business. Most of the time.