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The Demons Within

Vincent Berg


Other Books by the Author

Chapter header image, featuring 3-dimensional bat wings, bearing a black heart in the center with devil horns, set against two sharp spikes jutting off on either side

Not-Quite Human

A group of misfits discover they have more in common with otherworldly aliens than with their families and the rest of humanity. They set out to learn more about where they came from, and end up searching for their ancestral home, or at least somewhere they can call their own.

The Cuckoo’s Progeny

Lost with Nothing to Lose

Building a Nest of Our Own

A House in Disarray

Detective Em Rules investigates her boss, NYPD Police Commissioner Eddleson, even as her own life is thrown into disarray by the arrival of her sister-in-law and niece, Becky.

Demonic Issues

When Phil Walker starts seeing the demons within, the world of those afflicted with mental illnesses radically changes, dragging Phil, medical establishment, and everyone else along with it as he combats demons, dragons and fairies.

The Demons Within

Speaking With Your Demons

The Zombie Leza

A woman shows up, a decade after the zombie apocalypse began, who lives, communicates and controls thousands of the undead. Whether she’s mankind’s last, best hope or the source of their ultimate demise is anyone’s guess.

The Nature of the Game

The athletes at Windsor High are aiming for professional sports careers, and dislike making waves. But when Taylor meets the flamboyant Jacob, there’s a distinct clash of cultures. Casual meetings under the bleachers risk not only embarrassment, but millions in lost earnings.


An experimental interstellar voyage goes horribly wrong and the unlucky test pilot, who died, ends up back home unhurt. Eric Morgan battles through internal, personal and Congressional investigations as he struggles to perceive exactly what he’s become.

Stranded in a Foreign Land

Josh discovers an injured, shipwrecked alien, and not only cares for and shelters it, but seeks to rescue its companions, despite being pursued by American military forces and other nations’ too.


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Chapter 1: A World Exploding in Fairies

Chapter header image, featuring 3-dimensional bat wings, bearing a black heart in the center with devil horns, set against two sharp spikes jutting off on either side

There are two great days in a person’s life

the day we are born and the day we discover why.

William Barclay

Phil Walker’s perception of reality shattered one balmy autumn day. His understanding floating away on the breeze like fall leaves in the wind.

“Hey, Toni, this is Phil,” he said, struggling to speak on his smartphone while using a cane to navigate past other pedestrians on the sidewalk. His leg wasn’t a consistent problem, like with so many older middle-aged people, the cane wasn’t necessary … until he had trouble standing. “Do we have any more appointments?”

“No. We sure don’t. It’s dead as a doornail. Doug is sitting here twiddling his thumbs.”

“Alright. I’m still downtown. It’s a beautiful day and I figured I’d have lunch and enjoy myself. Let me know if anyone calls.”

Toni was his daughter, who took over after his receptionist quit unexpectedly years before. Since she didn’t have a job and he worried about keeping her busy, he offered her the position as a temporary fix. “It’ll help us both,” he explained. “You’ll earn a decent salary, better than your friends’ nickel and dime jobs, and I won’t need to call a temp.”

She’d accepted reluctantly, but had proven so adept, everything worked out. Not only was she diligent, reliable and personable, but she noticed discrepancies while updating financial and payment details. She reviewed his books, found numerous errors, and revised and corrected the entire thing. His customers adored her. Instead of a bored housewife snapping at them, she flirted with the men and told the women how to fix the simple problems, saving them money. She was a natural and earned decent money for herself. Everyone was pleased, and Phil’s company hummed like a fine-tuned engine ever since.

Walker Plumbing—a business he’d inherited from his father—was a local shop in a suburb of Philadelphia. While struggling in school as a teen, he’d taken the job with his father. Aside from a short stint in the army, he never glanced back.

Toni didn’t have his problems with education. She inherited her mother’s gift for fine detail and was working on her graduate degree. When he asked if she really wanted to continue wasting her time, she insisted she loved working for him. “The job allows me to interact with a variety of people, instead of the stuffed shirts at college. It gives me time to keep up with school while letting me decompress while my mind drifts. It’s the best of both worlds, and I get to work for a terrific boss.”

He knew she’d eventually move on to better things, as his son Taylor had—who now worked as a dentist in Baltimore. But for now, she seemed happy living and working with him.

“I doubt we’ll get any calls, Dad. If there are, I’ll call, though if it’s all the same to you, I might call it a day and send everyone home if business doesn’t pick up.”

“Wait until after lunch. If we don’t get any new calls, you may as well. It’s been slower than usual lately. In the meantime, Doug can clean out his truck and you can get back to your studies.”

She laughed. “I keep telling you, I’m better off focusing on the office. That keeps my mind off my studies, so ideas can percolate. Don’t worry about me. I’m doing fine working here. Grab some lunch and I’ll wrap up the rest of this week’s paperwork.”

Phil ended the call and lowered his phone when struck dumb in the middle of the sidewalk. A lancing pain pierced his forehead, blinding him with its ferocity. His vision went white as he winced in agony. His knee buckled and he struggled to remain upright as his sudden stop put pressure on his old wound. Then the pain evaporated as suddenly as it appeared.

“Are you alright, mister?” a young man asked, grabbing his arm to steady him as Phil teetered on his cane. An old shrapnel injury from the first Gulf War made his knee unreliable, necessitating his cane, though he rarely needed it. What incapacitated him a moment earlier was gone, and he had no idea what triggered it.

He blinked away a few tears and took in his surroundings, trying to reorient himself. “I … I think so. I … don’t know what happened.”

“Whatever it was, it didn’t look pleasant. I thought you were having a heart attack.”

“It felt like it,” he replied, not bothering to correct him, “but it’s gone now.”

That wasn’t completely true. His head still ached, a dull reminder of the incident, yet it was tolerable, better than when his leg acted up.

Phil was forty-eight years old with unkempt wavy hair, a beard going white before its time, wrinkles, and the paunch and butt cheeks plumbers are notorious for. He worked hard, took pride in his work and concentrated on one task at a time, rather than worrying about jobs he hadn’t lined up yet. People respected his honesty. If he couldn’t get to a job right away, he’d tell you. He’d also refund money he didn’t feel justified in keeping.

He walked with a bit of a waddle, more like a tall Penguin—Batman’s nemesis—than a veteran of a past American war. He played up the image for all it was worth with the kids, surprising them with his occasional deft moves.

“Well, if it happened once, it’s likely to again. You should get it checked, whatever it is.”

“I will,” Phil assured him. “For now though, I’m okay. Thanks for your concern.”

“You sure you don’t need any help. It might reoccur.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got my phone. If it does, I’ll be sure to call 911.”

As the man walked away, shaking his head, Phil tried to recall what he was doing. Instead of continuing along Market Street to Guido’s Pizza, he searched for somewhere to sit for a few minutes. He was approaching a bench, thinking the worst was over, when he was distracted, noticing his eyes playing tricks on him. He saw ‘floaters’, little black shapes obstructing his vision. Stopping to focus, he concentrated on them, afraid this was yet another symptom. It took a few seconds to realize the floaters didn’t actually float. Instead they remained steady, dancing in place, even when he turned his head. Glancing around, he noticed multiple isolated individuals had multiple dark forms swirling around their heads. Curious, he headed towards one, a man sitting in front of a shop, holding a cup and soliciting donations.

The dark shapes came into focus as he drew near. He recognized them, but they didn’t make any sense. They were demons, three in all, each about eight inches tall, fluttering around the man’s head. The beggar didn’t appear aware of them. Making the situation even stranger, they were naked, their tiny demon junk flapping with their motions. It was a disturbing display, but as much as he wanted, he found it difficult looking away.

He paused, gawking at the dancing figures until the beggar looked up, realizing he was being stared at, and lifted his cup.

Embarrassed, Phil dug in his pocket for some change. Approaching, he offered the man a ten-dollar bill as he studied the demons from close up out of the corner of his eye.

Rather than being black abstract shapes like floaters, or fuzzy and ill-defined like imaginary dream creatures, they were surprisingly realistic. The detail was amazing, including stubble on their chins, jiggling potbellies and twitching tails.

Having been caught once, Phil left the man behind, but began surveying those around him. He noticed other figures floating around other people. One woman coming out of a coffee shop had tiny dragons circling her head, while another had miniature fairies buzzing hers. Phil shook his head, trying to clear it, but they didn’t go away. Curious, he approached the woman, and when close enough, flicked one fairy dressed in a dark green dress.

He assumed they were figments of his imagination, but she felt real.

The fairy spun, glaring at him. Surprised by her reaction and the concrete, corporeal contact with a flesh and blood being, he took a step back. The tiny fairy, only about three inches high, flew towards him, only to veer away when she realized he was tracking her movements. She paused, mid-flight, and considered him, waving a hand to determine whether he could see her.

He did, and she fled when she realized he was aware of her, skittering to the others harassing the woman. It was then he noticed the sounds, as the one fairy yelled to her kin.

Phil was familiar with fairy lore because of his family’s background. He considered these more faerie than fairy. Fairies are light, humorous creatures featured in cartoons, while the ancient Irish faeries are dark, brooding and dangerous.

He considered that difference as he backed away, monitoring their response. Phil kept an eye out for more like them. The fairies in question, alerted, seemed to have a discussion, lowering the volume to whispers he couldn’t hear. A moment later, they rose in the air, observing him. When they did, the woman’s eyes opened wide and she paused, blinking as if surprised. She then shrugged and continued on. Her faeries followed, hovering in place around her head, watching him.

Phil considered whether he’d suffered a stroke. His head still ached, but it was a dull throbbing now, a steady reminder of the piecing pain before. His visions, aside from the multitude of fantasy creatures he now saw everywhere, were corporeal rather than ethereal and seemed tied to specific people. His lunch and responsibilities forgotten, he studied them in more detail.

He walked for blocks, studying the variety of critters. Each took on a familiar theme. The fairies surrounded creative types, the dragons concentrated on those looking blue, fat little trolls hovered over businessmen, while the demons focused on the homeless.

He’d been heading for lunch at one of his favorite spots in Camden, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. He’d been walking along Market Street and ended up at Roosevelt Plaza Park, a small grassy square facing City Hall. The green was a popular place for the civic employees during lunch, but Phil headed to a corner where he knew the druggies and homeless often congregated. The area was clean and well monitored, but the more nefarious types hung out along the sides until chased away, at which point they’d congregate somewhere else. Ignoring a discreet drug deal and the paranoid stares of the dealers, he took a seat where he could observe the creatures near the addicts and disturbed individuals. They each attracted a different type of imaginary creature. Many, but not all the homeless had the same demons, while the addicts had tiny devils, each wielding minuscule pitchforks. The devils repeatedly stabbed those in desperate need of a fix in their heads, while the others circled, waving their weapons and waiting for their opportunities to torment their hosts. Phil assumed there was some significance to the difference, but was so overwhelmed by everything, none of it made much sense.

After studying everyone and their associated otherworldly creatures, he remembered his other commitment and glanced at his watch. Standing, he decided to head back to his car, ignoring these side issues and focusing on reality for the rest of the day. However, in his hurry to leave, he passed one homeless man sitting cross-legged on the ground, and overheard the demons berating him. They screamed in a chaotic, unorganized chorus, “Kill Yourself! Kill Yourself!”

Having lost so many of his vet friends to suicide over the years, Phil was incensed. He spun, watching the demons tormenting the man, his grip tightening around his cane. The man appeared dazed, his shoulders slumped, his eyes unfocused and not paying attention to anything around him. Phil decided he needed to stop him from acting on his unseen tormentor’s advice.

Without thinking it through, he grabbed his cane and swung at the nearest creature. The cane hit it in the back, sending it flying, screaming as it went, which caused its companions to turn on Phil.

Their eyes widened, shocked at a human recognizing them. It took a moment, but with a unified cry, they all screamed “Kill Him!” which the man was disoriented enough to ignore, but they attacked Phil, flying at his face. Realizing he’d bitten off more than he anticipated, he was forced to defend himself. Waving his cane again, he caught another, breaking its back, though he didn’t have time to consider its fate as the others continued to attack.

He defended himself, swinging wildly at each. The man, waking from his confused and distracted state, cowered below him on the ground, screaming “Don’t Kill Me!”

All eyes were on Phil as he battled for his life against the tiny creatures. As he struck one after another, the park’s patrons gathered, watching the event unfold. “Hey, leave the man alone!” one yelled. A drug addled man nearby screamed “What’s wrong with you!” but Phil fought on.

He caught another demon in the face, killing it instantly. It simply vanished without a trace. He struck another with a backswing, caving its little head in. As ferocious as these tiny creatures were, they certainly weren’t organized fighters and had no coherent plan of attack.

When he eliminated the last one, and no more came after him, he became aware of the man cowering below him, quivering in fright. He noted that nothing remained of the demons, neither their blood, nor anything indicating they’d ever existed. Glancing around, Phil noticed the many stares and lowered his cane.

“Sorry, man. I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said, but the onlookers were livid.

Hoping to make amends, he pulled a couple twenties from his pocket, tossing them at the man, but another nearby homeless man shouted.

“We don’t want yo’ stinkin’ hush money. You should be ashamed of yourself!”

Embarrassed at being caught attacking imaginary creatures no one else could see, Phil realized he faced an untenable situation, so he turned and fled.

However, when he put his weight on his cane, it slipped and he stumbled, catching himself on the pavement. Glancing at his cane, he noticed it was bent, no longer able to support him. Clambering to his feet, he ran. Not relying on his cane, the sounds of jeers echoed behind him, the blush of a thorough public humiliation weighing on him.

Making it out of the park—despite numerous pieces of trash thrown at him—Phil hurried as quickly as his injured leg allowed. While his knee was tricky, failing on him at unexpected times, it was rare enough he could still perform complicated tasks—like defending himself. Using it for a prolonged time, though, was risky. As his leg faltered repeatedly, he worked up a sweat, growing exhausted.

He discovered his car unticketed by the local traffic cops. He unlocked and entered it and breathed a sigh of relief as he considered his next actions. Remembering what he was doing before the attack, he pulled his phone out again.

“Walker Plumbing, no job too hard or complex.”

“Toni, this is Phil.”

“I was wondering when we’d hear from you. Where have you been, Dad? It’s almost three.”

“I’ve been … busy. I got sidetracked with another task.”

“Well, if it’s business related, I need to enter the project so we can generate an estimate.”

“Don’t bother, it’s not,” he said, putting his keys in the ignition, aware the longer he waited the likelier a traffic cop might notice his vehicle. “Could you do me a favor? Can you call my doctor and make an appointment for me? You have my phone book on your system.”

“Dr. Johnson? What’s this about?” she asked, concerned. “Is it anything I should be worried about?”

“It’s nothing,” her father insisted, “at least I don’t think it is.”

“What should I tell them your issue is?”

“I need a referral. What do you call those brain doctors?”

“A neurologist? Dad, you’re scaring me. In either case, Doctor Johnson needs a description of your symptoms to make a recommendation. Your insurance requires a preliminary diagnosis, otherwise they won’t cover it.”

Phil considered it, frowned and realized he needed time to formulate what he was suffering from. “It’s nothing. I was just curious about someone I know. I’ll check it online instead of asking an expert.”

“Except you’re helpless on the web. Describe what he’s facing and I’ll research it from here.”

“Nah,” he said after a moment’s hesitation, “it’s a private matter. I don’t want to reveal his personal details until I’m sure what he’s dealing with.”

“Are you sure, Dad? You sounded worried a minute ago, like it was … important … to you.”

“It’s nothing to worry your pretty little head over. Go ahead and send everyone home. I’m heading back myself. I’ll be home shortly.”

After she signed off, Phil pulled out of his parking spot and headed for the North-South Freeway. He hoped to escape the city before encountering any other angry residents or their demons, fairies or dragons.

Chapter 2: Wrestling With Demons

Chapter header image, featuring 3-dimensional bat wings, bearing a black heart in the center with devil horns, set against two sharp spikes jutting off on either side

The most worthwhile thing

is to try to put happiness

into the lives of others.

Robert Baden-Powell

Phil considered, once again, what to admit to his family. He didn’t want to undermine their confidence and shake their faith in him. Opening his front door, he forced himself to smile.

“Hello. How’s everyone doing?”

His unexpected greeting surprised Toni and his wife, Jane. More than anything else, as it wasn’t his typical approach.

“I’m glad you enjoyed your afternoon off,” Toni replied. “I hope you got it out of your system.”

“Why? Is there more demand than usual?”

“Uh, not particularly,” she hedged. “A couple calls came in, but your older customers appreciate a familiar face.”

“I suspect they’ll survive if they don’t see me for a day or two. I’m sure the rest of the crew can handle things. I may take another day off, just to clear my mind.”

“Does this have anything to do with your friend?” she asked, arching her brow.

“Not specifically, but it’s given me a few things to consider.”

“Well, whatever you’re doing, I’m off.” Jane announced, coming down the stairs with her purse. “I’m meeting my girlfriends. Dinner is warming in the oven.”

“Don’t worry, Toni and I will clean up. Have fun.”

Jane Walker was a pleasant woman, but just as he had passed his prime, age was beginning to show around her eyes. She’d reached the ‘pleasingly plump’ stage, and it wasn’t unusual for her to disappear with friends. In fact, she and Phil spent ever decreasing amounts of time together over the years. He missed their old intimacy, but at the moment, was relieved he wouldn’t have to account for his day with her.

He tried keeping the spark of romance alive, but after suffering from early menopause, Jane was uninterested. As her mood worsened and she attacked him for minor issues, he’d stepped back, giving her room to live life on her own terms.

Phil’s trip home was unlike his time in the city. Driving home, he didn’t notice anything unusual. Whatever strange creatures might be tormenting the other drivers, they weren’t obvious through their car windows. He wasn’t sure why, though he suspected the tinted windows on most modern cars had an effect. Either way, he was relieved not to be confronted during his drive home. He wasn’t sure how he might respond if challenged while driving. Still, he kept his vision focused on the cars ahead of him, not risking glancing at pedestrians or into the passing vehicles.

It was reassuring imagining his earlier adventures were merely a bad dream. He realized he had to face them again, but wasn’t prepared to deal with customers wrestling with the same tormentors.

Toni waited until her mother left. “I’ll reschedule everyone to take up your slack. I hope you won’t get too distracted. You’d tell me if there was anything to worry about, wouldn’t you?”

Toni looked much as her mother had when they were younger. She had short, dark curly hair, rosy skin and a bright smile. Unlike her parents, she was thin, without a spare ounce on her entire frame.

“Don’t worry,” he answered, leaning in and kissing her forehead. “Why don’t we enjoy dinner? Better yet, since the cat’s away, why don’t we mice take the opportunity to pig out in front of the TV and watch some old movies?”

Toni looked askance at her father, but shrugged and followed him into the kitchen. She realized her parents had grown distant over the years.

Now that their children were grown, her mother wasn’t fond of Toni working for her father. She felt it kept her tied to the house instead of developing her own life. Jane had wanted to start a new life herself once the kids moved out.

The fact Phil was taking time off—without explanation—instead of taking his wife on a cruise like she’d been hinting, didn’t bode well for their relationship. Toni planned to drop a few suggestions, but he didn’t seem inclined to talk, so she wasn’t expecting any breakthroughs.

Phil, meanwhile, while relieved he’d escaped detection this time, realized he was skating on thin ice with his family. Phil paused, remembering the incident in the park, though instead of recalling his anger, saw him catering to his mother, trying to get her to eat, worrying about finishing his school assignments so his teacher wouldn’t ask any embarrassing questions, his father being nowhere in sight.

His mother was severely depressed for most of her life—to the point of being unable to cope with much of anything. Even as a toddler, he knew to treat her like he was walking on eggshells. The simplest comment might send her into a spiral where she couldn’t climb out of bed for days. Jane and Toni were peripherally aware of her illness, but since he never spoke of it, they never really questioned him about it.

The situation only worsened over time. He was not only responsible for feeding himself and getting her to eat enough to survive, but he had to keep his mother safe from anything which might set her off: sales calls, comments from others, the daily mail, even notes from school.

Another image popped into his mind. He was struggling to complete a model of Fort Ticonderoga for a school project. His mother had promised to take him shopping for supplies for weeks, but they’d never gone, and he was busy trying to slice the phosphorous off the safety matches to construct the logs when a stray spark caused his soup can full of shavings to explode in his face. The project never got turned in, and while the other kids understood his singed brows—having experienced it themselves—he couldn’t explain why he hadn’t done it sooner, or even asked for an extension. What’s more, he definitely couldn’t ask his mother to sign a note about the delinquent assignment.

So he did as he always did. When she was particularly out of it, he slipped her the note.

“What’s this?”

“Nothing. It’s far a school trip to the museum,” he answered, not bothering to specify which.

“Long as I ain’t got to takes ya. It’ll give me a chance to sleep in!”

And like that, she signed it without ever glancing at it.

Yet, as bad as his mother was, his father wasn’t any better. A notorious alcoholic, his wife’s illness sent him seeking the refuge of the bottle—which left his son to clean up the empties so the house didn’t reek like a still. Because he never encouraged anyone to visit, he became renowned for someone who valued his privacy.

Phil never admitted what he faced at home, no matter how close he was to anyone, so it was natural for him to keep most other things to himself as well, but he was well-aware of the cost of mental illnesses both to them and those around them. While the trigger to his anger was over losing his army buddies to suicide, the rage which overtook him had more to do with his residual anger over his parent’s helplessness.

When he started dating, he’d casually mention how he learned to fend for himself because his mother was mentally ill, but he never shared the details. What’s more, he discovered early on that no one really cared. If one didn’t feel the need to confess, few ever pressed the issue. Even if they did, they’d end up more upset than if he’d never volunteered anything in the first place. What’s more, he’d then spend more time trying to defuse their anger than addressing his own. In fact, they were more upset over his inability to show his own anger. So those few minor episodes reinforced his tendency to clam up. It was clear no one wanted unpleasant news, no matter what they claimed, so Phil always made it easy for everyone else by taking the load on himself.

That wasn’t to say he was a slouch when he started his own business. Having been self-sufficient his entire life, he had little patience for anyone who couldn’t pull their own weight. If they had problems of their own, he’d give them leeway for a few days and encourage them to seek help, but he emphasized they needed to work as much as everyone else if they expected to survive. That was something everyone admired about him. He was always sympathetic, but it didn’t change how he treated anyone. If you had a problem, you could come to him and he’d help you resolve it, but it never changed their underlying relationship with him. He never treated you with kid gloves afterwards, and never held your failures over your head by continually asking how you were or sheltering you.

If you screwed up, you knew you had to admit it and make amends, but from that day forward, you had an entirely clean slate. This ability to take a person, no matter their background, at their word and move beyond it, endeared him to nearly everyone.

It had caused some problems in his relationships, when the women he dated asked why he never expressed his concerns, but over time, as they became inured by his taciturn behavior, they relished his listening to their every word. When required to talk about his own day, few cared for details of his time spent dealing with shit, so they wouldn’t press.

In short, as long as everything worked, no one ever complained about his behavior. When trouble brewed, he’d work overtime to allay everyone’s concerns, rather than focus on his own problem—which he always saw as his problems—something he had to resolve for himself before he could alley their concerns. This was especially true, from his perspective, since they couldn’t do anything about his problems anyway.

Even now, although Toni was concerned about his responses, he knew she’d blow up if he as much as hinted at what had really happened. No, this was his cross to bear. It wasn’t fair dumping it on anyone else’s shoulders.

Section break featuring a black and white image of interlocking iron iron bars forming devil horns in the center, with trianges on the ends, with the other bar forming a upward curve and two circles, featuring a crude smiling face.

Phil ventured into Center City, Philadelphia the next day. After considering his many mistakes, he planned to rectify them. Instead of studying everyone surrounding him, he strode directly to the Woodlands Community Gardens, staring straight ahead rather than getting distracted by what he might witness in transit. He was looking for the most extreme cases rather than the milder, more successful ones. He didn’t think anyone would appreciate his attacking invisible entities near them, but those better off were more likely to file charges. He was still likely to be arrested, but there were fewer chances of his being held for any length of time. Worst of all, he didn’t know whether harming the imaginary beings only he saw would have any impact on the people they threatened. However, the only way to determine whether it would was to test the premise and see how much trouble he could get himself into.

He found the Woodlands an ironic choice, since it stood next to the Philadelphia Veterans Administration offices. Although they didn’t have much success curing the homeless residing so near their mental health services, he hoped to have better luck.

He picked the new location in the hope no one would recognize him from the day before. He again headed to the less-public areas of the park where people went to escape scrutiny. He strolled among the various park denizens before selecting a prime subject afflicted by demons, but also alert. He didn’t know if the combination was any better than the others, but he hoped so.

Biting his lip and hoping for the best, he approached the man. Handing him a twenty-dollar bill, he struck up a conversation.

“Excuse me. I hate to disturb you, but I was wondering whether you’d care to talk?”

The man, thin, wearing threadbare clothing but protecting a wheeled cart containing several bags of goods examined him skeptically.

“I’m always willing to talk, but I can’t help wondering what you’re after.” The man was clean, but had long hair and an uneven beard, with wild eyes which kept flicking about, following random things around him. “Are you selling God, trying to make yourself feel good, or pushing some agenda?”

Phil laughed. “No. I’m a plumber by trade, but I noticed you seem bright and capable. I’m curious what brings you to living in a public park.”

The man raised an eyebrow, expecting more, so Phil sighed. “My daughter is young, and while she has plenty of promise, she’s showing a few symptoms of being distracted and bothered. I’m wondering whether she may be in a similar situation. I’d like to pick your brain about the best way to handle things if she does develop a problem.”

The man chuckled. “I’m the last person to ask, as I’m not terribly successful at it. Yet, I can at least tell you what I’ve experienced, and you can decide whether it’s any help or not.” He extended his hand, grinning at his potential benefactor. “The name’s Peter.”

Realizing this was a test, Phil reached out, gripped and pumped his hand.

“Pleased to meet you. My name is Phil. My daughter is Toni. She’s … twenty years old.”

Peter chuckled again. “You’re unsure how old she is?”

Phil joined him by laughing as well. “No, I know her age, but I’m nervous since she’s a little old to be experiencing this. Doesn’t it typically hit in the late teens?”

“Schizophrenia usually strikes between eighteen and twenty two, but with many things, the age ranges vary. While most people don’t hear voices until later, we often get into trouble much sooner. We encounter trouble with the law or alcohol and drugs, before our lives completely fall apart.”

“So you were diagnosed by a professional?”

“Yeah, I wasn’t always hopeless. I finished my BS degree. I had big plans for my life, even after I started hearing voices. Yet it became more difficult to maintain a normal life—especially once my family turned their backs on me.”

“You see, that’s what I wanted to discover.” Without examining his position, Phil sat on the ground before Peter, leaning forward and opening up. “You seem similar to my daughter. She’s slightly older, so I wasn’t sure whether she still qualified, but she’s been struggling for years. She seems to be self-medicating, but so far there’s no evidence she’s schizophrenic yet.”

“Well, there are other reasons she might be having trouble, but there are also a few things to watch.” As Peter elaborated, Phil struggled to listen, distracted by the four demons tormenting him, screaming “Kill someone”, it was difficult following the conversation. His eyes kept flickering over his head, or from side to side, and Peter noticed.

“You know, you’re showing a few symptoms yourself. If it’s genetic, you might still be asymptomatic. If so, it would help to tap into your own issues to relate to her experiences.”

“You think so?” Phil reached into a backpack and pulling out a couple sandwiches, offering Peter one. Peter considered it, shrugged, unwrapped it and took a bite, trusting it was okay.

“You’re having trouble focusing. It’s as if you’re hearing voices no one else can, even if you’re not conscious of them. I’m guessing you’re a borderline schizophrenic who managed to squeak by, by the hair of your teeth.”

Phil accepted that, biting his lip before responding, taking a chance. “You mean like: ‘Ignore him.’ ‘Hit him,’ or ‘cut something, make it bleed?’”

Peter’s eyes opened wide, his head jerking back. “You hear them, too?”

“I don’t hear anything on my own, but sitting this close beside you, I can hear the echoes of your own demons. That’s why I’m so worried about my daughter. I can feel the turmoil in her head, but so far, I don’t hear anything when I’m around her like I do with you.”

Peter leaned forward, turning his head as he examined Phil in a new light. “I’ve never heard of anyone acting as an intermediary before. If what you claim is true, you should discuss it with a psychiatrist. They might learn something about the disease by studying you.”

“Which is another reason I’m interested in picking your brain, to discover whether what I’m perceiving is real, or I’m just a little crazy myself.”

“You repeated exactly what I was hearing. I doubt you could guess that without suffering it yourself. Even then, you wouldn’t know what words I was hearing.”

“At the same time, you’re rational and clear headed, and can relate to what I’m saying, while most shrinks would consider me delusional.”

Peter chuckled. “Yeah, there is that aspect to it.”

“Look, while we’re at it, I want to try something. It won’t amount to much, but I’m into oddball dances. I’d like to do a ceremonial dance, just to see whether it will have an impact. It’s likely to look violent, but I won’t harm you. Call it my ‘plumber’s dance’, if you will.”

“If you slip me another twenty, you can dance all over me if you want.”

Phil smiled, pulled out his wallet and handed him a crisp hundred-dollar bill. Clasping him on the shoulder, he used his replacement cane to stand, and went into a theatrical spin, waving his cane in the air. Those nearby turned at the odd movement, watching to see what he was up to, but Phil had planned this ahead of time. As he completed his spin, he caught one demon in the back of its head, breaking its tiny neck before it realized there was any danger. His fellow demons, realizing something was up, glanced around, trying to determine what was happening. By then, Phil spun in the other direction, ending the move by smashing the next in the skull, sending it into the pavement. The last demon, realizing it was in trouble, howled and launched itself at him. Phil danced away, striking it with a backhanded blow powerful enough to break its hip. When it collapsed, shrieking, Phil completed his dance with a theatrical bow, smacking his cane on the back of its head, extinguishing its life.

Peter watched the entire routine, delighted by the older man’s fluid movement, despite his obvious difficulty getting around. He clapped enthusiastically, which convinced those nearby this was some sort of staged event.

Phil, on the other hand, had the time to observe what happened to the last of his targets. When he delivered the killing blow, the creature vanished as if it never existed. As Peter applauded, Phil took a bow.

“Don’t ask me to do that again. I’m not sure I can manage it, but if nothing else, it makes me feel better.”

“So how did a former dancer end up as a plumber?” Peter asked. “Did you lose your way too?”

“Not quite. While I was in the military, I took up Tai-Chi to help with the stresses of combat. While I don’t practice much anymore, I can still perform a few movements, even if I can’t keep it up for long.”

“Well, you’re not the only one who enjoys your ‘plumber’s dance’. It’s brightened my day, and damn it, I feel better already.”

Phil chuckled, heartened by the positive response. “I’m glad you feel that way. Take the money and go get yourself a decent meal. Nothing too extravagant, mind you. You’ll need the rest for emergencies. I hope we get a chance to talk again, but it may be a few days before I can return.” With a final bow, Phil made his exit. Peter continued clapping, delighted by the odd turn of events which brought the strange plumber into his world.

For Phil, the encounter was everything he hoped. It proved he could chase away the demons, striking terror in their hearts, without exposing himself to their attacks or frightening those around him. He realized he still presented a challenging figure, so he beat a hasty retreat. He planned to try another park to determine whether he could repeat the encounter. Either way, he felt better making a difference in these people’s lives. What impact it ultimately had was a question for another time. He hated killing these creatures, but it was either them or Peter. If he simply chased them away, they’d return to torment their victims again. This way, others might take their place, but if so, he’d try a different tactic. For now, he made a difference in Peter’s life, hopefully offering a temporary reprieve from his mental illness. That was a satisfying achievement for one day. He’d spend the rest of the day rethinking his strategy, seeing whether he could improve it or make it less obvious. Either way, he assumed he could avoid attacking anyone else for the rest of the day. He’d see about tomorrow, though.

Chapter 3: Confronting Family

Chapter header image, featuring 3-dimensional bat wings, bearing a black heart in the center with devil horns, set against two sharp spikes jutting off on either side

Experience: that most brutal of teachers.

But you learn, my God do you learn.

C. S. Lewis

Phil was nearly at his car, avoiding glancing at those he passed for fear of creating awkward encounters, when his phone rang.

“Hello, Walker Plumbing, Phil Walker speaking.”

“Dad? This is Toni. When you were in the city yesterday, did you notice anything unusual?”

Instantly on guard, he stopped to give her inquiry his full attention. “Not really, why?”

“There are some news reports of someone attacking the homeless in public parks. I was wondering whether you heard or saw anyone acting oddly.”

Phil laughed, struggling to disguise his nervousness. “This is the city. They specialize in bizarre behavior. If you want conformity, stick to the suburbs.”

“Are you back in Center City again today?”

Phil bit his lip. His inadvertent slip was evidence he wasn’t as careful about what he said as he’d hoped. He decided telling the truth—or at least a modified version of it—was his best approach. “Yeah, I’m here meeting with my friend again. What are they saying? I’ll ask whether he’s seen anything.”

“They say someone attacked a homeless man in the city yesterday. The social media is abuzz, but that’s all I know. I was just curious. I’ll check it out online and let you know what I find.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing. There are all kinds of weird people in the city. Out of the millions living here, a few are likely to overreact. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“You’re probably right, but it’s rare Philadelphia gets highlighted about something like this. It paints us in a bad light. If anyone asks me about it, I want to know what happened.”

“Well, do what you feel you must, but it sounds like a non-event to me. I’ll ask, but I’m not terribly interested in the story.”

“Okay, I’ll leave you alone to enjoy your day off. Have fun and tell your friend hi for me.”

“I will,” Phil lied, before hanging up, suspecting he’d set himself up for ridicule. If he kept attracting attention fighting beings no one else could see, he was likely to face increasing scrutiny over time. Sooner or later he’d be exposed. There was little sense in denying it, though he wasn’t sure how he’d deal with it yet.

Section break featuring a black and white image of interlocking iron iron bars forming devil horns in the center, with trianges on the ends, with the other bar forming a upward curve and two circles, featuring a crude smiling face.

Phil swallowed, plastered on his best phony smile and opened the door.

“Hi, I’m home.”

“It’s about time,” Jane called from the kitchen. “Dinner will be ready soon. I was worried you might not show up on time.”

He glanced in her direction, but couldn’t help noticing Toni sitting on the living room couch, studying him.”

“Yeah, I meet someone. It took longer than I expected.”

“How was traffic?”

“Not bad, better than usual.”

This time, his curiosity got the best of him on the way home, and he studied the cars he passed on the highway. However, he was still unable to see any magical flying creatures inside the other cars—even those with plain glass windows. He knew they must be there, but was relieved he didn’t have to confront them every hour of the day. Now if he could avoid going out in public indefinitely …

When he turned, Toni continued to glare at him. Her sitting there wasn’t accidental. She had something to say. Swallowing nervously, he figured he might as well get it over with.

“How was your day, Sweetie?”

“Oh, mine was interesting,” she replied. She held her ubiquitous gadget—a tablet this time. As they spoke, she began typing on it, not glancing up.

“Did you do anything unusual today? Like visiting the park?”

Phil bit his lip. She knew something. The fact she didn’t come right out and accuse him spoke volumes. She was fishing, hoping to get him to admit something. He needed to play along, not admitting anything while not revealing something which might trip him up until he could weasel out what she thought she knew.

“After you inquired, I asked my friend. He hadn’t heard anything, but you know how it is. There’s so much happening in the city, the people living there don’t hear about it until they get home and turn on the news.”

“You said you were in Philadelphia yesterday and didn’t visit any parks?”

“I walked by Franklin Square, but that was the closest I got,” Phil said, thinking fast but only able to think of a single part. Unfortunately, his choice wasn’t far from the one he was in today. He winced at the clues he was giving away, rubbing his temples.

“Headache or guilty conscious?”

“Uh, possibly too much sun.”

“If you were in Philly yesterday, then how do you explain this?” she asked, handing him her tablet. “It was taken by a government worker in the Camden County City Hall.”

The photo displayed him from behind, shot from a distance without a lens, waving his cane over the homeless man in Roosevelt Plaza Park. “Is this the guy you were talking about?”

“How should I know?” he said, handing it back. “I wasn’t there.”

“He’s wearing a blue jacket, as were you yesterday.”

He shrugged. “A lot of people have blue jackets.”

“Not with that logo. It looks suspiciously like our company jacket.”

“It’s too bad the image isn’t clearer, otherwise you’d see it isn’t ours.”

“So you’re sure none of our employees were in Camden yesterday.”

“No one was scheduled to be there, but it’s possible someone stopped by.”

“That’s what I’m assuming. Isn’t that near Guido’s, the place you like in Camden? The one you frequently take me to, the one by City Hall?”

“I guess so,” Phil said, biting his lip.

She glanced at the image again, blowing it up so she could study it in detail. “Isn’t that your cane? What ever happened to that one? You’re using a different one today.”

“I switch them out every now and then, so I don’t wear them out.”

“Come on, Dad. The circumstantial evidence is piling up, and you’re sinking farther beneath your denials. Is that you or not?”

He glanced towards the kitchen, sighed and leaned forward, resting on his elbows. “Look, don’t tell your Mom. I don’t want her to worry, but yeah, I was in Camden yesterday.”

“Yet you’ve been claiming you were in Philadelphia.”

“Technically, I never said so. All I said was I was in the city. I never specified which. You made the leap yourself.”

“I’m willing to forgive you for lying, but what were you up to, and why lie about it?”

He glanced towards the kitchen again, lowering his voice. “I was embarrassed. I went to Guido’s for lunch, like you guessed. Someone started harassing me for money and I lost it. I sorta blacked out. I didn’t hurt the guy, never touched him with my cane, but I scared the crap out of him. When I came to, I panicked and ran off. I didn’t say anything because I don’t want you and your mother worrying about me. I was frustrated, but I think my blow-up got it out of my system. I’ve been feeling better since then.”

“Don’t worry; I won’t say anything to Mom. The two of you haven’t been on the best of terms lately. This won’t help, but there’s one condition.”

Phil leaned back, watching her. “And that is?”

“You make an appointment with a shrink. You may be fine, but I wouldn’t count on it, and ignoring it suggests that you aren’t. If someone identifies you, this could blow up in your face. If you’ve already seen someone about it, it’ll look better.”

“That sounds fair. I’ll make a few calls tomorrow and see if anyone has any recommendations. I’ve never been a big fan of psychiatry. They’re all a bunch of quacks, as was their protégé, Sigmund Freud. The man discovered his father was abusing his sisters and was unable to cope. He instead claimed victims of sex abuse imagine everything, and psychiatry hasn’t advanced since. It’s all based on a massive lie.”

“You can rationalize it however you want, but just discuss it with someone. Hell, talk to a Priest if you want, as long as you work things out with someone.” She cocked her head, studying him. “You should also see a doctor. If you blacked out, there might be something more serious going on.”

“Not a bad idea, but I don’t think it’s a medical issue. It was an angry outburst, that’s all,” he said, not completely convinced.

“What about today? Where did you go? I assume this ‘friend’ was another convenient lie?”

“I wandered the city, Philadelphia this time—for real. I wanted to work things out and see whether I was likely to do it again. I felt good today. Better than I’ve felt for some time, so I figure both the blow-up and the day off helped.”

“Take care of yourself. I worry about you. If you fall apart, the business runs aground and a lot of people suffer, including all the people with leaky pipes. Do you need another day off?”

“That might not be a bad idea to insure I’m over it. Besides, I’ve been riding myself particularly hard. It’ll give me time to think.”

“Just don’t let it slide. This might be serious.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

Section break featuring a black and white image of interlocking iron iron bars forming devil horns in the center, with trianges on the ends, with the other bar forming a upward curve and two circles, featuring a crude smiling face.

Phil waited until he was outside the house and inside his car the next morning before making his phone call.

“Dr. Mansfield’s office.”

“Hey, Marla. This is Phil Walker. I’d like an appointment with Dr. Mansfield. I had an episode recently and need a referral; only I’m unsure whether I require a psychiatrist or neurologist. I …”

She giggled, always a pleasant experience when dealing with a busy clinic. “The doctor will need to hear your explanation, but I won’t do it justice over the phone. How serious do you think it is?”

“I’m not sure, but it might be significant if I suffered a minor stroke and am only now realizing it.”

“If you had a stroke, you should head to the Emergency Room. Your insurance will certainly cover it.”

“Except, I’m not convinced it was. It’s also been a couple days since it occurred, too late to do anything about it.”

“I see. In that case, you should see a neurologist. They can determine whether there was any damage, but again, Dr. Mansfield will need to make the determination himself. Let me see,” she said as the phone went silent for a few moments. “I can fit you in at ten this morning. I’m assuming it won’t take long and he can write up a simple referral between our existing appointments. Just don’t get too long winded.”

“I’ll keep it short, Marla, and thanks for the prompt attention.”

“See you at ten, then,” she said before signing off.

Starting his car, Phil backed up. “Hmm, seems I’ve got some time to blow off. I can’t stick around the house without Jane asking questions. Since there’s no sense leaving Upper Darby, hopefully there won’t be as many demon-afflicted people.” With that he set off for the center of town, near his doctor’s, but also a variety of shops. He’d have things to keep him occupied, though he doubted—regardless how many people were in town—it would be an uneventful day.

Section break featuring a black and white image of interlocking iron iron bars forming devil horns in the center, with trianges on the ends, with the other bar forming a upward curve and two circles, featuring a crude smiling face.

Arriving downtown, Phil parked a short distance from his doctor’s office. He knew he was likely to encounter the same pesky creatures, but wanted to try a new tactic he hoped wouldn’t attract as much attention. His efforts the previous day were moderately successful. Hopefully he could continue his new mission without compromising himself.

He wandered past a couple stores, noticing a few individuals with mysterious creatures flying around their heads. He ignored them, mostly because they were too distant to reach easily. He neared one woman with the tiny demons, his most despised nemesis since they actively tried to incite their victims to commit suicide. He decided he needed to take action. Tipping his hat to the woman, he twirled in place, swinging his cane in the air. When he completed the turn, and the demons continued ignoring him, he bashed one’s head in with his cane, unnoticed by its companions. Finished, he smiled and doffed his cap to the lady.

Rather than take offense or cower in fear, she giggled—which he took as a good sign. Replacing his hat, he left her and her demons, trusting she’d be less tempted to follow their suggestion if there was at least one fewer tormentor. It wasn’t a complete solution. For all he knew, those killed might return. He had no evidence his actions had any effect. If these were indeed magical beings, there was no assurance death meant anything to them.

Only a short distance later he encountered a mother with two small children in tow, beset by dragons. Stopping before her, he tipped his hat, winked at the kids, and spun once again, eliminating a single dragon as he finished, though killing dragons took a harder blow than demons did. When he bowed afterwards, the woman’s children giggled, one applauding his efforts. The mother, looking momentarily confused, smiled at him before ushering them into the store.

“Did you see him?” the one boy asked his sister. “I’ve never seen old men dancing in the street before. Can we see if he’ll do it again?”

“Maybe when we return,” their mother offered, “assuming he’s still here.”

That single comment, more than any other detail, convinced him he’d discovered a winning strategy. If people were thanking him for killing these fantastic creatures, he’d be able to continue without attracting so much attention. He couldn’t hope to escape detection for long, but if anyone was upset, he could potentially pass it off as a harmless prank.

As he strolled along the promenade, he continued with one person—and a single creature—at a time, perfecting his technique as he went. Some people clapped, a few thanked him, several appeared understandably confused by his actions, but no one complained or stared. Instead, most took it in good humor. When he reached the end of the stopping plaza, he glanced at his watch, realized it was closing on ten. He preceded to his appointment only a few buildings away, not bothering chasing any additional creatures for fear he’d be late.

“Phil Walker for Dr. Mansfield.”

“I’ll tell him you’re here,” Marla said. “Take a seat. How’re you feeling?”

“Actually, I’m in a delightful mood. I haven’t felt this positive in quite some time.” He took a glance around the room. There were another two patients waiting to see the doctor, one filling in a new admittance form. However, one had tiny court jesters swirling around his head, complete with funny multicolored hats with tassels. Grinning, he turned and winked at Marla before she could close the window separating the office from the waiting area. “In fact, I feel so energetic I want to dance, even with this durn cane I’m forced to carry.”

With that, he twirled in a circle, his cane outstretched since it cleared everyone’s head. Completing his spin, he brought it down hard, well away from the man’s head, but clipping one of the flying jesters. The man, obvious distracted before, glanced up, surprised.

“Pardon me, but haven’t you ever had one of those days when you felt like dancing?”

“Not in some time,” he admitted, “but seeing you enjoying yourself makes me feel better. Please, continue.”

Smiling, Phil bowed in acknowledgment, before spinning in the opposite direction with one leg outstretched, clipping another at the end of his move.

“Delightful,” the man exclaimed. “I need to do that more often myself.”

“Take my word for it, skip the cane. It makes for an awkward dancing partner.”

Marla, who’d never closed the window, continued to stare at him wide-eyed. “You seem to be feeling better, which negates your worries I’d imagine. But if you don’t mind, let’s avoid any more dance moves for the moment. As unsteady as you are with that leg, I don’t trust you not to break anything, yourself included.”

“As you wish,” he said, blowing her an imaginary kiss. Sitting down, he observed the remaining jokers were besides themselves, zipping back and forth, searching for any sign of their companions, neglecting their victim.

“Do you do this everywhere you go?” the older woman asked.

“Not normally, but I’m feeling so enthused, I need to burn off the excess energy. It makes me feel better, while entertaining small children. If that’s all it takes to bring a smile to people’s faces, I don’t mind making a fool of myself.”

The woman waved her hand. “You’re hardly embarrassing yourself,” she assured him, “though you did surprise us. It’s not often we receive a dance recital in the doc’s waiting room.”

Phil leaned forward, noting Marla left to inform Dr. Mansfield. “I may give you a repeat performance, if the doctor’s assistant isn’t watching.” He finished with a wink, which she giggled at, before glancing at the window. He sat back, reaching for an ancient magazine. “I’d best keep busy, lest she scold me again.”

Both patients chuckled, returning to their business. The man, however, who’d been hunched over earlier, now sat up straight, smiling, though he still bore a weariness in his eyes. Phil wanted to eliminate the other creatures, but knew better than to try.

“Phil?” Marla said, opening the inner-office door. “The doctor can see you now. Remember, keep it short. Tom is waiting for his appointment.”

“I’ll be so quick, you’ll swear I danced right through the office,” he teased, to the twitter of the other patients.

“You’re so bad,” Marla said, slapping his arm.

“Hello, Robert,” Phil said as he entered the examination room.

“Good morning. It sounds like you’re keeping my staff entertained. How are you feeling?”

“As I told Marla, I haven’t felt this well in ages. I feel like my mind is clearer than it’s been in years, but I don’t supposed that’s the point, is it?

Robert Mansfield smiled. “How about if you start by describing your symptoms? When did they occur?”

“I was walking along the street in Camden when I was struck with a blinding pain. I literally couldn’t see anything other than a bright light, and it felt like a javelin was shoved into my forehead. My vision returned and the pain lessoned, but my head still ached. Worried, I went looking for somewhere I could sit down and collect myself.” He paused, unsure if it was wise revealing more. “The discomfort dissipated over the course of the day, but I didn’t notice any other symptoms.” He glanced around, as if someone might overhear. “I’ve been noticing apparitions: faint, ghostly appearances that seem to dance around me. I’m not sure what they are, or whether I’m imagining them. Rather, I know for a fact they aren’t there, however I’m unsure what might trigger such visions.”

“I agree, it’s a cause for concern, but it doesn’t sound like a stroke to me. I’ll write your recommendations, though you might want a vision test. It might be you’ve got something impinging on your optic nerve which might account for both the pain and your visual irregularities.”

“If that’s all it is, it will be a tremendous relief.”

“Walk to the door and return. I want to study your gait.”

Phil did as instructed, ending up in front of the general practitioner.

“You can sit down,” he said. As Phil sat, he continued. “I don’t detect any disruptions in your motor skills, which is good news. However, I’m not familiar with what to look for as I don’t encounter these conditions often. You should still get a CAT scan, as a tumor would explain all your symptoms. You might have nothing at all, but it doesn’t hurt to check—aside from the pain in your wallet, of course.”

“Believe me, if I can rule out any further damage, I can handle the co-pays.”

“Here’s a number for a neurologist I know, as well as a local psychiatrist. You already know Dr. White, your eye doctor. You need to set up appointments with each. I’ll forward my summary to them, so they’ll anticipate your call. Make sure you keep me apprised of anything they discover. I can run interference with all three if you’d like, ensuring they’re working together, addressing the same issues. No sense having everyone repeating the same tests.”

“I’ll do that, as well as authorizing they share their results with you. As I said, I want to resolve this as soon as possible.”

“Personally,” Robert conceded, “given your temperament, the lack of any continuing symptoms, and your little dance routine, I doubt there’s anything wrong. Yet I prefer ruling everything out before I give you the all clear.”

“That’s all I ask. My wife and kids would never forgive me if I didn’t check this out and something turns up later.” He paused, as if considering something. “Just as an aside, I know you can’t say anything about his condition, but let me know whether Tom’s situation improves. He was looking a little the worse for wear, so I did a little energy medicine trick I picked up from a client. I doubt it accomplished anything, but he looked better afterwards, so I’m eager to know if it had any effect.”

Robert smiled, glancing at him askance. “It’s unlikely it accomplished much. Even if properly trained, there haven’t been any substantive evaluations of the techniques, so they’re all unproven hocus-pocus at this point. If any of it is ever proven, believe me, they’ll make the announcement on the news in a heartbeat. I’ll tell you whether his symptoms lessen, but I can’t promise anything more than that.”

Phil exited the exam room, waving at Marla as he passed. “Thanks for scheduling me in, I’m assuming I finished on time.”

“He’s not very late, though he tends to have a host of issues,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“Maybe he’ll take it easy on you today.” As Phil left the inner office, he glanced back, noticing Marla standing directly behind him. Turning back, he addressed Tom. “Since you asked for a repeat, I’ll risk Marla’s wrath on your behalf.”

He twirled, dipping low, only to rise swinging his metal cane towards the ceiling, catching yet another of Tom’s tormentors.

“Mr. Walker,” she chided. “I warned you about that.”

“But I didn’t fall,” he protested, winking at the other patients, both of whom giggled.

“It was a pleasure meeting you,” Tom said. “You’ve brightened our day. Now you’d best make your escape, before she catches you.” He jumped up with an enthusiasm he’d lacked earlier and crossed in front of Marla, supposedly protecting him from an assault. Phil laughed, as did the woman, and he exited the office.

“So far so good,” he said aloud once outside. “Let’s see if my luck continues.”

Setting off, he scanned ahead for likely suspects. Spotting a sullen young teenager, unhappily accompanying his family with two tiny devils surrounding him, lacking their usual pitchforks, he set off. “With luck, I may put off his disease for a little longer, as it doesn’t seem fully developed yet.”

Approaching, he doffed his hat to the man’s younger sister, who giggled. Studying the teenager, Phil tapped his foot twice, announcing to the kids something was about to begin. As the boy and his mother glanced up, he spread his arms, tapped his foot twice more, and began singing.

“♫When you wish upon a star …” He started to spin, raising his cane overhead so it wouldn’t threaten anyone. “♫Makes no difference who you are,” he continued, spinning further, glancing skyward. “♫Anything your heart desires,” he sang, ending with a theatrical stop on his right foot, “♫Will come to you.” With that, he brought his cane down a short distance from the teenager’s head. He swept it back, catching the devil’s partner as he waved it overhead, finishing his act with it by his side.

The entire family stared at him, open mouthed for several moments. The kids began clapping. “Again, again,” the youngest demanded. The woman giggled, and the subject of the demon’s assault grinned, as if he hadn’t in a long time. It was a shy grin before, but grew rapidly until his white teeth shone and he looked several years younger, without any of his prior concerns.

“Well, that was unexpected.”

Phil bowed before glancing up. “I saw your kids looking bored, and figured I’d brighten their day.”

“Can I give you something for your performance?” the woman said, confused about the protocol.

“Nah. I’m a rank amateur, only interested in the occasional smile. Your grins are payment enough, besides, if you offered anything, you’d only encourage me to continue. I’m not sure my kids would appreciate that.”

His last line caused the entire family to chuckle as Phil backed up, waving his hand, before turning, raising the cane to his shoulder, and sauntered off.

He continued walking, feeling like all his previous concerns were gone, the answer to his earlier predicament overcome. Approaching another storefront, he encountered someone he’d entertained previously. He wasn’t planning on accosting her again, but she had other ideas.

“You’re back. I saw your little song. Can you sing another?”

“Yes, please!” Shouted two young children, escaping their mother’s grasp as they exited the grocery store. Despite her bag of groceries and her inability to control them, she smiled wearily, glad they were entertained for a few moments and unlikely to cause trouble.

“Well, if you insist.” Phil tapped the ground with his cane twice before lifting his voice. “♫Look at all this stuff, isn’t it neat?” He twirled 30 degrees before halting and raising his cane at a sharp angle, surprising them all. “♫Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?” he sang, indicating his cane with his other hand, before bringing it down sharply on the other side of the woman’s head. “♫Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl, the girl who has everything?

The kids broke into applause.

“That was terrific,” the woman announced. “The way you maneuver your cane was amazing. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear the cane stopped, went off track, yet you recovered without missing a beat. Was that planned, or was it unintentional?”

“The key to any act is to never reveal your secrets,” he confided. “As long as you’re watching the cane, and not my hands, my little trick was a success.”

“What were you doing with your hands?” she asked, intrigued.

“I slipped these out of your ears while you weren’t paying attention.” He displayed two quarters, flipping one to each of the children. They danced in place, showing them off to anyone interested. He’d spent enough time hiding pennies while entertaining his own kids, he was used to palming small objects, though he never imagined using the skill this way.

“Are you annoying this poor man?” the kid’s mother scolded, approaching from behind with her hands full of groceries, smiling sweetly.

“He doesn’t mind,” they insisted.

“Indeed I don’t,” he said, turning. Flipping his cane in his hand, he caught the tip and waved the handle by the woman’s head. Like before, the cane deflected of its own volition and he ended spinning in the other direction, deflecting it again before lowering it, tapping it twice.

“Very entertaining. I’d applaud, but no one’s willing to hold my bags,” she said, glaring at her kids.

“Sorry,” they both said in unison, as if they’d practiced the routine multiple times. Their timing was impeccable.

“I could take them to your car for you,” Phil suggested. “It’s a minor payment for some positive reinforcement.” He turned to the kids, holding his hand against his mouth, protecting it from their mother. “As is saying ‘thank you’ and ‘pardon’.”

“Pardon us, Mom,” the boy said, batting his lashes.

“Thank you for letting us see him again, and bringing us here to see him.”

“You’re welcome,” she said. “I definitely owe you for that alone. That simple act by my kids has changed my entire day.”

“You’re not fooling anyone,” Phil said. “You enjoyed my silly dance. Despite your claims, there’s still a playful little girl locked inside that dour face. It helps to smile more. You should try dancing for strangers, it’s surprisingly helpful.”

“I believe you, but I’m not sure my kids would appreciate it.”

“Sure we would,” her son said.

“See, you shouldn’t encourage them,” she said. “Now I’ll be expected to perform in public.”

“There are worse trials,” Phil said, waving his hand and backing away. “It was wonderful entertaining your delightful youngsters.”

As he turned, walking away without glancing back, she called after him. “You wouldn’t say that if you spent much time with them.”

“Children are always a delight, if you allow them to laugh,” he called back, granting her a backhanded wave.

Figuring he’d attracted too much attention, he walked farther this time. He paused when he saw someone else with demons tormenting them, this time fully grown, repeatedly stabbing him with their pitchforks. He was stalking across the parking lot, scowling, involved with his own thoughts. Even from this distance, Phil could hear their torments as he closed with the man.

“Pardon me,” he said.

The young man glanced up, caught by surprise, wondering who he was. Instead of answering, he tapped his cane twice, spinning and stopping abruptly. Twirling in the other direction, he halted his cane a foot and a half from the young man, only to slash it down to the ground.

“Uh, what was that about?”

“I don’t know,” he responded. “How are you feeling? A little less blue, perhaps? Maybe the world is a little more still, a bit quieter?”

The man hesitated, considering the question. “I do feel more at peace.”

“It’s amazing what a silly little dance can do.” Phil turned and headed towards his car, not giving him time to ask any questions.

He’d only gone a short distance when he heard the sound of rushing footsteps behind him. Anticipating the guy wanting to ask him something, he turned, waving his hand dismissively, only to come face to face with two cops: an older thirty-something male and a younger female officer. Neither looked pleased.

“Excuse me, can I ask what you’re doing?”

The first thing Phil noticed were the multiple little red, naked demons, complete with pot bellies swirling around the male officer’s head. Unlike the black demons typical of schizophrenics, these were an entirely new species, which he’d never encountered before. As a result, he was distracted and unable to concentrate.

“I … I’m just … heading to my car. Did I do … do something wrong?” he asked, putting on his best poker face.

“Can I see your license,” the female cop requested.

“Uh, I guess,” he answered, taking his eyes off her partner—Officer Andrews according to his name tag—reaching for his wallet.

“I’ll take your cane, if you don’t mind,” Andrews said, his demons flying even faster around his head.

“Uh, my leg gives out occasionally. If you take it, I might … have an accident.”

“From what we saw, you’re plenty stable on your feet.”

“My leg’s unpredictable. My doctor, Robert Mansfield’s office is only a few doors down, if you want him to vouch for me.”

“No thanks,” he said, as Phil handed Officer Smithers his wallet. “Hand it over. I won’t ask a second time.” The deeper his voice dropped and the sharper his glare, the faster his demons zipped around.

Frowning, Phil did, anticipating the worst. Despite his belief he’d remained under the radar, he wasn’t as successful as he’d hoped.

Officer Andrews examined it, hefting it to gauge its weight.

“We’d like you to come with us,” Smithers said.

“Are you serious? I didn’t threaten anyone.”

“We’re charging you with being a public nuisance, making threating gestures and public intimidation.”

Phil glanced past the officer, hoping to see someone who might vouch for him. He spotted no one, although crowds were gathering to observe his public humiliation.

“Can I at least make a phone call? My family is expecting me.”

“You should have thought of that before causing a scene,” he was told. Andrews grasped his arm, force marching him to a distant police car he hadn’t noticed.

“You’ll get your call once you’re booked. Expect to spend the night,” Smithers advised him.

Phil’s previous confidence and pleasure evaporated, as he realized everything he assumed he could avoid descended upon him, demanding explanations. He didn’t know how he’d explain his behavior. He had no excuses, no justifications and no defense. The jig is up, he thought, trying to imagine spending the night in a cell and which new creatures his fellow inmates might host.

Chapter 4: Facing the Music

Chapter header image, featuring 3-dimensional bat wings, bearing a black heart in the center with devil horns, set against two sharp spikes jutting off on either side

Nobody looks good in their darkest hours.

But it’s those hours that make us what we are.

Karen Marie Moning

He answered after the third ring, the clock already ticking down the minutes Phil had access to the phone. “Mathew Tate.”

“Mathew, I’m … in a bit of a pickle. I’m currently in jail and this is my one call. I need help.”

“Okay, calm down, we’ll work this out. Where are you and what are the charges?”

“I’m in the county lockup in Upper Darby. They’re charging me with public nuisance and intimidation.”

Mathew chuckled. “What, some customer stiffed you?”

“No, I’m innocent. I was entertaining some folks, got a little free with my cane, and the police overreacted.”

“You didn’t say anything, did you?”

“No, they’ve been trying to intimidate me, but I don’t trust them. They’re pretty … livid. I didn’t think they’d take anything I said at face value. They tried to prevent me from calling you, restricting me to the interview room.”

“That’s their modus operandi: pressuring you until you accidentally incriminate yourself. If you allow them, they’ll exhaust you until you don’t know what you’re saying. You did the right thing. Don’t say anything more, I’ll come down and see what I can do to sway them. They’re probably collecting evidence before deciding whether to charge you or not. The chances are the charges aren’t definite yet. Hopefully I can influence their decision. You’ve never had any legal troubles before aside from a few business-related lawsuits, so I don’t anticipate any significant problems. You should be out by tomorrow. Do you need me to contact your family?”

“Absolutely not! I’d rather not alarm them. It’s easier telling them after the fact, than worry them about something they have no control over. Besides, this is a little … embarrassing.” He paused. “You can’t get me out sooner?”

“The law moves slowly, cases often take months to bring to trial and criminal proceedings take time. If we can release you before they file charges, it shouldn’t take long. However, if they charge you, you’ll be lucky if it only takes a day to get you released. It’s not unusual for it to stretch out several days, even for simple charges.”

“They keep offering me drinks, but I refuse. My refusal to drink is pissing them off. They keep threatening me.”

“You’re right to refuse. They’re on a fishing expedition. Since they’re unsure of the charges, they’re looking to take your DNA in hopes you’ve committed some other crime they can charge you with. They’re angry you’re not stupid enough to fall for their ploy.”

“Anyone who’s ever watched television should know that much. It’s surprising anyone falls for their techniques.”

“You’d be surprised how many do. It beats doing honest police work: interviewing witnesses, collecting evidence, following leads. It’s best not to say a thing until I get there. Then you’ll be able to straighten them out and I can intervene before you say the wrong thing. I’ll get to the bottom of this.”

“Good, because they’re about to cut me off. Just—” The line went dead before he could finish the sentence.

Section break featuring a black and white image of interlocking iron iron bars forming devil horns in the center, with trianges on the ends, with the other bar forming a upward curve and two circles, featuring a crude smiling face.

The detective entered the interview room. “All right. You’re done here. Let’s go.”

The same little red demons who’d surrounded Officer Andrews fluttered around Detective Jones, as they did a quarter of the officers Phil observed. He didn’t take it as a good sign, as most of those afflicted seemed short tempered and agitated.

“You’re charging me? Shouldn’t I speak with my lawyer before I’m processed?”

“No. No one was willing to press charges. You’re being released,” he said as he led him out into the squad room.

“No one complained?” Phil asked, unable to believe it. He worried he’d come on too strong with the last person he’d confronted, scaring him instead of reassuring him first.

“Not a one,” Jones admitted. “That doesn’t mean you’re off the hook, though. We’ll be watching, waiting for you to slip up. You’re too nervous, acting guilty. We don’t know what you’re up to yet, but we’ll find out. When we do, we’ll come down on you hard.”

“You’re assuming guilt despite a complete lack of evidence? Isn’t that considered harassment? I’m a respected member of the community, with an established business and multiple community ties. Why would you assume I’ve suddenly become a common criminal? Where’s my financial motive? What would I gain by abandoning a successful business?”

“Look, just watch your step and we won’t have any troubles. When people try to hide something from the police, it isn’t generally for the public good.”

“So I’m free to go?”

“Not yet. You still need to sign a few forms and collect your possessions.”

“You haven’t allowed me to see my lawyer. I’m not about to sign anything until he examines every document. You have no reason to suspect me, but I’ve got plenty not to trust you.”

“Your choice, it’s no skin off my neck,” he said as Phil sat in the chair beside his desk.

Phil sat, crossing his arms and leaning back, watching the devils dance faster than ever. “Good, now get me my damn lawyer.”

Section break featuring a black and white image of interlocking iron iron bars forming devil horns in the center, with trianges on the ends, with the other bar forming a upward curve and two circles, featuring a crude smiling face.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t that late when Phil was back on the street again. Mathew gave him a lift to his car, though Phil asked him to drop him off at the corner instead. He was sure the short drive would appear on his bill, which he wouldn’t owe if he waited longer before calling. However, he couldn’t avoid it without phoning home, and he was willing to pay to ensure he wasn’t railroaded.

Between how he approached the schizophrenic which attracted the cops, the growing array of mythological figures, and how to evade trouble again; he had plenty to consider.

He realized he needed to identify each species, as they seemed to be associated with a different mental condition. Some, like the devils and demons, were especially dangerous, but he wasn’t sure the others were harmful. He doubted they were beneficial, but needed to understand which to prioritize. Even with the schizophrenics, those without pitchforks weren’t as threatening—at least those who didn’t use them weren’t. The smaller they were—even though they were all diminutive—meant the threat was diminished. Although today reinforced that his efforts improved each person’s mental state, he had no clue how long the effects lasted. If it didn’t last longer than a couple days, it wasn’t worth risking his future for. No matter what, it would be difficult ignoring them, knowing what they were capable of. In short, he needed to figure out what he was dealing with if he hoped to make any difference.

He neared his car, studying the various people with various shapes hovering near their heads, when he heard footsteps approaching from behind. Anticipating a repeat of earlier, or someone he’d scared looking for revenge, he turned, fearing the worse.

“I see they let you go. I hope they didn’t hassle you too much.”

The woman addressing him, a younger Asian with blond hair he’d never met, was slightly out of breath from trying to catch up with him.

“Excuse me, but you waited all this time on the odd chance I’d stop by?”

She giggled. “I work in one of the shops in this complex. My brother was one of the people you performed for. When I saw you, I was afraid he may have offended someone. When I talked to him afterwards, he seemed better than he’s been in years. He was happy, clear headed and rational.”

“Pardon me, but I don’t recall meeting anyone who looks like you.”

She giggled again, her dangling earrings jangling, her rose-colored glasses highlighting her bright red lipstick, contrasting with the pale skin. “He’s my half-brother, same father, different mother.”

“Sorry, but that doesn’t help me place him. There were a couple of people who seemed a little … distracted. Not that it matters one way or another.”

“He’s thin, brooding, dark, silent and depressing. He’s also got a red goatee, which he doesn’t trim very well.”

“Oh, I remember him now. The one after which the cops cornered me. I’m glad to hear he’s doing better. As you said, he barely responded when I first approached. I was afraid I scared him. However, I didn’t do much, just danced a little jig. I doubt it’ll have any lasting effect, but it’s pleasant seeing people smile for a change.”

She cocked her head, no longer giggling. “Somehow, I’m skeptical. He’s been schizophrenic since high-school, most days, he hardly recognizes when I speak to him because he’s not sure I’m real. He’s still disturbed, but the difference in his behavior is significant. Certainly more than a simple tap dance would affect—especially one as clumsily performed as yours.”

That was a preview of The Demons Within. To read the rest purchase the book.

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