by David Drake
Manly Wade Wellman is now best known for his stories of John the Balladeer (Silver John), a minstrel who wanders the mountains of Western North Carolina fighting supernatural evil with his silver-strung guitar. The John stories are wonders, mixing folk tales and folk music with just plain folks. They have a permanent place in American fantasy and (I believe) in American literature.
Before Manly and his wife Frances moved to North Carolina, they lived in or near New York City. There in the 1930s and '40s, Manly wrote stories about other ghostbreakers (psychic detectives): educated, urban (and urbane) men like Judge Pursuivant, John Thunstone, and Professor Enderby. The heroes of these stories were of a type familiar in the pulps of the day, but they prefigure John in displaying their author's love of real legend and history.
Shortly after Manly died, I wrote my Old Nathan stories as a sort of homage (not pastiche) to him and to John the Balladeer. I had never written a classic ghostbreaker story, however.
Tony Daniel asked me to do a story for the Baen website to be put up in conjunction with the mass-market release of Night & Demons, my fantasy/horror collection. Tony (and Toni) gave me free rein for my subject, but I wanted something in keeping with the collection.
The stories in Night & Demons were mostly written during the '70s and '80s when I was becoming an increasingly close friend of Manly and Frances. I therefore decided to write a ghostbreaker story of the type Manly had written for Weird Tales.
It might seem to some readers that the character and attitudes of Professor Field aren't a million miles away from those of Manly Wade Wellman. I like to think that also.
THE VIRGIN OF HERTOGENBOSCH
Field squinted through the goggles. His eyes weren't what they'd been fifty years back. Ordinary glasses would probably have been sufficient protection and would have given him a clearer view of the 1962 dime he held in the Bunsen burner, but he didn't cut corners in matters like this.
Not that his present task had anything directly to do with magic.
Field set the glowing silver on the anvil and banged it three times with the rounded end of his ball-peen hammer. The hot metal spread enough for him to take a last stroke with the flat face and not hit the jaws of the pliers. That flattened the edges which had risen during the previous blows.
He thought of reversing the half-formed coin and striking what had been the back side, but the fingers of his left hand were starting to cramp. He opened the pliers--ordinary blacksmith's tongs were too clumsy to work on the small coin--and set them on the workbench, then raised the goggles to his forehead.
The calendar above the workbench still showed July. If Field remembered it when he was done working, he'd tear the sheets back to September, though it didn't matter very much.
The Buick dealer had sent a calendar each of the past two years. The color picture at the top showed Field and Louise in front of the dealership with their brand-new 1968 Wildcat. The car still sat in the drive, backed nearly to the street because Field liked room in front of the former garage when he was working in it, but Louise had died of a heart attack the night they brought the car home.
The silver dime was cooling on the anvil. In a moment Field would reheat it and flatten the portion which he'd been holding with the pliers the first time. After he'd tempered it again in the flame--hammering made silver hard--he could cut two crude bullet jackets from the former coin to be swaged onto lead cores.
A car with a thumping exhaust pulled up on the street, raced for a moment, and shut down. Field looked out the open door of the shop. A black Ford station wagon had parked in front of the house. There weren't proper shoulders in this subdivision, so the parked vehicle narrowed the pavement so that two cars couldn't pass in opposite directions. There wasn't much traffic out here, though.
Field wasn't doing much beyond looking these days, but the girl who got out the passenger side--and stumbled; the car's right wheels were in the grassy ditch--was well worth looking at. She wore a paisley halter-top with a button-front denim skirt and sandals.
Her long black hair swung gracefully when she moved. For a moment she looked so much like a girl named Slowly that Field's breath caught.
But that had been a long time ago, back when Field, GT, had been a reserve center on a football scholarship. A very long time ago.
The boy who'd been driving came around the front of the car, holding a paperback book in his right hand and in his left a package--it was of a size to be another book--wrapped in red cloth. He wore jeans with a pale yellow shirt, and over the shirt a brown leather vest. His chin was clean shaven and his moustache was as neat as Field's own, but his brown hair was shoulder length.
Field kept his lips from curling. Long hair was the fashion for men now; but it wasn't a fashion he was ever going to warm to.
Field removed the goggles and turned off the Bunsen burner, then stepped out the door of the shop. "Can I help you?" he called, working the gauntlet off his left hand. The pliers were too short to use without protection from the heat.
"I'm looking for Professor G T Field," said the boy. "They gave me this address at the School of Journalism."
"You've found me," Field said, "though I'm retired now. And yourselves?"
The couple walked down the drive, skirting the Buick. The fellow was in his mid-twenties, a young man, but the girl was at least six or seven years younger. She's certainly well-growed, though, Field thought; and smiled.
"I'm Aubrey Huber," the boy said, offering the book in his right hand to Field. "I'm a writer."
The book's title was Where Toad-Men Croak. Against an orange background a Negro spearman wearing a loincloth and a Greek helmet guarded stylized city gates. The publisher wasn't one Field had ever heard of.
"And this is Becca Walsh," Huber added as Field squinted at the cover.
Up close the girl was even prettier than Field had thought at first. Around her neck was a pendant with Celtic symbols on a braided thong. A separate ball-chain--Field thought of it as a dog-tag chain--disappeared into her halter.
Becca reached down into her halter top and came up with dog-tags and a silver St Christopher medal on the same chain. She held them out.
"We're married even though I don't wear a ring!" she said brightly. "These are Donald's dog-tags. Aubrey gave them to me when we found them in the safe-deposit in Memphis. This really makes me a Huber!"
She'd sound perky if she were announcing the end of the world, Field thought wonderingly. Of course, he wasn't sure that Becca would know what "the end of the world" meant, but she might be smarter than she seemed on this first meeting. And she certainly was pretty.
Aubrey glanced at the girl. He was trying to keep his expression blank, but Field didn't think he was best pleased with Becca's blurting.
Aloud the boy said, "My Dad was a paratrooper in World War Two. We found the dog-tags in the lock-box along with this thing I brought to show you."
He hefted the object in his left hand. The red cloth around it was a towel.
"Then let's go inside the house and you'll show me," Field said without noticeable hesitation. He didn't see as many people as he used to before he retired, especially not since Louise had died. A visit from personable strangers was a pleasure, if he looked at it the right way.
Field closed the shed and hung the hasp of the padlock through the staple to keep the wind from blowing open the double doors, but he didn't bother to lock it. There was nothing inside to draw a thief, and little enough that would be costly to replace. The anvil had been his father's, and the block it was set in was a section of tropical hardwood left over from a tree bole which Campa natives had hollowed out to make a canoe... but it wasn't of any monetary value.
Field walked toward the house with his visitors on either side. Unexpectedly Becca said, "Were you wounded in the war, Professor? Your arm?"
Field raised his left hand and clenched it to show he understood what she meant. He didn't think about his withered arm, any more than he thought about the fact his hair was thinning or that he needed glasses to read unless the light was very good.
"I was not," he said. "This happened when I was six. My father ran a clinic for the Presbyterian Church in Brazil, and one day a coral snake bit me."
He opened the kitchen door and gestured his guests through, glad that he'd made an effort to keep the house cleaned up. It wasn't as neat as it had been when Louise was alive, of course. Sometimes Field thought he could hear her chiding him for leaving things in the sink for a few days. When that happened, he got up and washed dishes.
"Like the coral snakes in Florida?" Aubrey said, pausing inside the simple kitchen. "Their bite is neurotoxin like a cobra's. A six-year-old would be lucky to survive if he got a full dose."
Becca was looking at the electric range. Two of the burners had stopped working, but Field hadn't bothered to replace them. There hadn't seemed to be any reason to. As he got older, there seemed less and less reason to do anything, but he tried to keep himself from feeling that way.
Field set Where Toad-Men Croak on the kitchen table. He liked the title, though he wondered if it was a deliberate play on words. The book seemed to be Robert E Howard stuff. In the course of that sort of story, the mighty-thewed hero was likely to croak any number of monsters, possibly including Toad-Men.
"Would you like beers?" he said, opening the refrigerator. "I'm going to have one myself."
"I'll have one, thank you," said Aubrey.
"I never turn down a beer!" Becca said. Giggling, she added, "Or much of anything else if you ask the right way."
Field took three Schlitz from the tray in the refrigerator door and set them on the linoleum countertop. They had twist-off caps, but it was easier for him to use the bottle opener waiting there.
"Here you go," he said, handing a bottle to each of them. He hoped that Becca was eighteen, drinking age for beer in North Carolina, but it wasn't enough of a concern for him to ask. "There's glasses in that cabinet--" he nodded "--if you need them."
Aubrey shrugged and drank from his bottle; Becca was already two deep drafts into hers. That was much as Field had expected; but he knew Louise would have insisted that he ask, so he had.
"Come into the living room," he said, leading the way. "And since we're on social terms, you'd best call me Gee. I always figured that Gee fitted me better than 'Professor' did, so it's what I had my students call me."
Aubrey and Becca followed. The boy turned to look at the egg-crate shelving to the right of the door.
Most of the items wouldn't mean much to a stranger. For example, the intricately carved billet of wood had been a guard's lignum vitae club around the turn of the century until it was scrimshawed into a work of art in a Kansas prison-mine. The man who gave it to Field on his deathbed had also described the 1908 riot. It had ended in a bloody massacre when a carload of guards, each carrying two revolvers, had emptied their weapons into gathered prisoners who were expecting negotiators.
You couldn't put memories on a knickknack shelf. When Field died, the memories would die also unless he had passed them on.
Becca was looking at the portrait of a seated man which hung between the front windows. She pointed and said, "He's a mean bastard. Look at that mouth, I mean."
"Louise would have agreed with you," Field said, smiling faintly. He settled into his easy chair in the corner, with bookshelves behind him and the side table and gooseneck lamp to his right. "Louise was my wife, my late wife. The painting is a self-portrait by my father. The two of them didn't get along."
"Where did these knives come from, Gee?" Aubrey said. He turned, holding a hilt of polished hardwood into which was set a mere sliver of steel--probably a horseshoe nail which had been hammered flat.
The boy was changing the subject, though Becca's comment hadn't bothered Field. His father had been a brilliant and many-talented man, but Becca hadn't been the first--or the hundred and first--to call him a bastard.
"From the interior of Brazil," Field said. "As I did--I was born at the medical station, and it wasn't till the snake bit me that I came to the United States. It wasn't coming back for me."
He let his mind drift into the past, as it did often these days. But he had guests, he mustn't be discourteous. Aloud he said, "You said I was lucky to have survived a coral snake's bite. You're right, and the luckiest part of it is that it happened while my father was on a turtle hunt, so the boys with me--Campa natives--took me to their own healer. I spent the night in his hut while he prayed and burned herbs."
The scene was as clear in Field's mind as it ever had been; though in truth, it hadn't been clear when it was happening. He didn't know how much he really remembered and how much his mind had created over sixty-odd years as he tried to make sense of what had happened.
"I saw warriors battling demons all through the night," he said. "And at dawn the demons fled. I woke up then, and I was alive."
Field shook his head with the memories, if that was what they were. "My father had arrived by midnight," he said, "but he didn't interfere. There was nothing he could have done, and for all his flaws--"
He smiled at Becca.
"--he never insisted on taking over from somebody who knew more than he did."
Aubrey had set his beer and the package on the built-in cabinet under the shelves when he picked up the knife. Now he put the knife back in place and brought the package over to where Field sat.
"It's about dreams that I want to talk to you," the boy said. "You've got a reputation for knowing about things that they don't believe in medical school. I think you can help me with this."
Field put on his reading glasses and turned on the lamp. "I've seen things that they don't believe in most places," he said. "But I believe what I` see. Most times, at least."
Aubrey offered him the package. Field held it in his right hand and peeled back the layers of folded towel. He could already tell it wasn't a book after all. It felt more like a short length of board....
Field opened the last fold, and his breath caught. It was a length of board, in a manner of speaking: a hardwood panel, about four inches by five or maybe a little larger. On it was painted the Virgin Mary in a dark blue robe, wearing a crown rather than a halo. She held a spindly Jesus on her lap, more an emaciated midget than a child.
It was very old. The painter had signed his name around the edge of the yellow circle that framed the Virgin. Though the Gothic letters were too small for Field to read without the handglass he kept in the drawer of this table, he already knew what the words would be.
"Dad said it was painted by Hieronymus Bosch," Aubrey said, saving Field the trouble of taking out the glass. "He brought it back from Europe with him."
Field kept his eyes on the painting. It was as serene as you could ask, not at all the sort of subject that you thought of when you read Hieronymus Bosch pinxit; but there was something unpleasant about it nonetheless.
I don't want to turn my back on it, he realized.
Aloud Field said, "Where is it that your father found this painting?"
"Well, it wasn't Dad who found it," said Aubrey, leaning over Field's shoulder to look at the painting also. "He traded a Luger to a British sergeant for it. The sergeant said it was valuable but he didn't want to keep it because it gave him bad dreams. Dad said he wasn't worried about worse dreams than he had from the Ardennes already, but after he had it a while he knew what the fellow meant and he didn't want the painting around either."
Aubrey laced his fingers together and stretched them backward. Field glanced up at the boy but said nothing.
"Dad talked about the painting," Aubrey said, "but we never saw it. I thought he must've sold it or traded it away. But there it was with his dog-tags when we opened the lock box after he died. And the St. Christopher's medal was on the chain too, wrapped around the painting. He said the medal had saved him at Cheneux when everybody else in his platoon was killed or badly wounded."
"Umm," Field said, a place-holder while he thought. In sudden decision he laid a fold of the red terrycloth over the painting again and switched off his reading light. He held the painting out for Aubrey to take.
"I'm not the person to come to for authenticating pictures," he said, "For what my opinion's worth, I think it's real. But I think your father was right in not wanting it around."
"I don't like it either," Becca said. "It's creepy."
Switching to a wheedling tone, she went on, "Aubrey? You know what we ought to do? We ought to sell it. Then we'd have the money to go to Las Vegas like we been talking!"
"Becca, just shut up till you've got something useful to say!" Aubrey snapped. The anger surprised Field, though the whine that underlay Becca's voice no matter what she was saying had gotten on his nerves already.
"Look, Gee," Aubrey said, turning from the girl again. "I don't care who painted this picture or how much it's worth. I'm not going to sell it. I want to use it."
"Use it how?" Field said. He took a sip of his beer. His mouth felt dry, but the beer didn't taste right either. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand.
"Look, I'm just breaking in to writing," Aubrey said. "The fantasy writers who really made it big were able to unlock their subconsciouses. Lovecraft wrote the things he dreamed about. Robert E. Howard said when he wrote the Conan stories, it was like an old frontiersman was sitting at his elbow and dictating--it wasn't Howard himself writing it."
Field tried the beer again. It was all right this time.
"I know that's what they said," he said, looking up at Aubrey. The boy seemed tense, desperate even. "I've known enough writers over the years to doubt anything they say about writing, though. And it seems to me that you're writing already--"
Field gestured toward the door. He wished he'd brought the book with him instead of leaving it in the kitchen.
"--so you don't need dreams."
"Toad-Men isn't real publishing!" Aubrey said. "Powell offered me five hundred bucks and they still owe me a hundred of that. If I'm going to really make it as a writer, I need to access my dreams. I thought this would be the way--"
He hefted the covered painting.
"--but I slept with it and I didn't feel anything like what Dad talked about."
"I think you should thank your lucky--" Field began, but he broke off when his eye fell on Becca. She was sitting on the couch under Dr. Field's picture. She had stopped pouting and taken rolling papers and a glassine bag of marijuana out of her purse.
"Miss Walsh!" Field said. "I'll thank you not to smoke a reefer in my house."
Becca flushed. Her hands covered the marijuana reflexively, but she said in an angry voice, "Why not? A joint never hurt anybody! You ought to try it yourself some time!"
"Becca, we're guests," Aubrey said. His voice had none of the anger he had shown moments before when the girl suggested that he sell the painting. To Field he said, "I'm sorry, sir, it's your house as you say. Drugs aren't nearly as dangerous as the government wants you to think, though. Even cocaine has no long term effect unless you overdose. It's not addictive."
"That's not my experience," Field snapped, angry but keeping hold of his temper. He generally did unless he'd had a few drinks, but that didn't mean that it didn't get his dander up when somebody talked twaddle to him like a preacher in church.
In a more settled voice he said, "My first newspaper job was in St. Louis during Prohibition. It was on the drug route from Mexico to New York, but a lot of the coke and heroin didn't make it over the Mississippi. Or the reefers either, come to that. You can believe what you please, but I generally believe my own eyes. Whatever they may be teaching doctors in med school now."
Becca got up abruptly. She'd stuffed the marijuana back into a big leather purse she'd probably bought at a street fair.
"We better go now," she said to Aubrey in a harsh voice. "I told you we should see my brother instead."
Field got up from the chair, using his arms to help him rise. He regretted that things had gone this way, but he wasn't going to be lectured by a fool girl in his own house.
Though if I was Aubrey Huber's age, I might feel a bit different. Field grinned and suddenly felt better.
"Becca, sit down," Aubrey said. "Gee, I'm sorry this happened, but it's nothing to do with what I came here for."
Aubrey waggled the painting again. Becca did sit down, though the two men were now standing.
"I want you to unlock the dreams for me," Aubrey said earnestly. "If I can put real nightmares down on paper, I'll be as great as Lovecraft and Howard. I've got the talent. All I need is material like they had!"
Field looked into the boy's face and saw the hope in it: hope that an old man who'd seen and learned a lot of things during his life could help a boy with a dream. Field had been a boy like that himself, many years ago.
"I know something about dreams," Field said, choosing his words carefully. "I shouldn't wonder if there were some locked in that painting. But if so, I think they ought to stay there."
"Can you open it so that I can decide for myself?" Aubrey said, his tone sharpening.
"It might be that I could," said Field, "but I think it's better that I not. Better for you--"
"That's my own business!"
"Yes, it is," Field said, nodding. "But better for the world too, than that the sorts of things that Hieronymus Bosch knew should be loosed on it."
Aubrey began to refold the towel. "All right, Becca," he said. "We'll go see Jimmie in Memphis."
To Field he added, "I gave up medicine to be a writer. I'm going to make it, whatever that takes."
Becca hopped from the couch. "My brother knows black magic!" she said to Field. "You'd call it black, anyway. A friend taught him."
"No real friend would teach a man black magic," Field said. He kept his voice calm with an effort. "And yes, any magic that opens the way for what's in this painting is what I'd call black. That much I can feel in it."
"It was his cellmate in Brushy Mountain," Aubrey said. "The Tennessee state prison. Jimmie says he can let the dreams out, and that's what I want. What I'm going to have."
"It was just drugs," Becca muttered, but she wasn't looking at either man as she spoke.
Field sighed. "Let me see the Bosch again," he said, holding his hands out for the painting. Becca's brother might very well be able to open a way to the things in the painting: letting things loose wasn't nearly as difficult as closing them up again.
Instead of giving Field the painting, Aubrey unwrapped it and held it facing the older man. The Virgin was serene. The Child, though not a real child as a modern artist would have painted Him, had a detached glory which threatened no one.
Yet there was a threat. Field didn't need the testimony of Aubrey's father and the soldier who'd traded him the painting to know that.
"If I open the painting," Field said, his eyes on the Virgin rather than on the boy holding it, "then I'll take precautions to be sure I don't let out more than I mean to."
He looked at Becca, then back to Aubrey. "Which somebody else might not do, or do as well," he said. "That's the only reason I'd do this thing for you; but you have to let me do it my way, then. Do you give me your word as a man that you'll let me do it my way?"
"Sir, if you can let me dream, I don't care how you do it," Aubrey said, holding out his right hand. "Sure, you're in charge."
Field shook with him, wishing that this business weren't happening but determined to follow through now that it had come this far. Aloud he said, "I'm going to do this because I said I'd do it, but I want you to think about something, Aubrey Huber: this picture gave your father dreams without any need of spells to open it up, but you say you don't get anything. Why is that?"
The boy shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "Dad was, well, he didn't talk about the war really, but he'd seen things, and I guess the Brit he got the painting from had too. I'm not a veteran."
Field nodded. "That might be," he said. "Though you might think what it means that the Battle of the Bulge brought them closer to what's in this picture."
He gestured with his left hand. Though withered, his hand and arm worked normally. They just had no more strength than those of the six-year-old boy he had been when the boichumbeguacu, the largest of the coral snakes, bit him.
"But there's another way it might be," Field said. "When did you get this notion of needing the dreams to be able to write? Because you'd been writing fine without them, hadn't you?"
"Well, I've been writing, but I wouldn't call selling a book to Powell Publications 'fine,'" Aubrey said. "When I saw the painting I remembered what Dad had said about dreams, and it came to me. I'd get my chance!"
"When you saw the Bosch?" said Field. "Or was it when you took away the silver medal that your father had put there to keep something inside"
Aubrey shook his head angrily. "Look, it was the same thing," he said. "I unwrapped the picture and I saw it when I unwrapped it. Now, are we going to do this?"
"My word's always been good before," Field said. He didn't quite snap the reply, but it wouldn't have bothered him if he had. "We'll do the business out in the shed, where I was when you came by."
As he stepped into the short hallway to the bedrooms, he said over his shoulder, "I've some things to gather up. I'll be back in a tick."
When Field returned to the living room, he'd put on an old tweed sport coat. Both side pockets bulged, and the sleeves bagged a little at the elbows. He still wore the long-sleeved shirt he'd had at the forge. His gray wool pants with moth holes in the right leg were the same also.
"Before we go out...—" he said to Aubrey, taking a sheet of coarse yellow paper from the cabinet under the egg-crate shelving. He used this paper to make carbons when he was writing articles, and it was fine for the present disposable use as well. "I'll write the words you'll be saying. You have to speak them, since the spell's for you. Do you know Latin?"
Aubrey shrugged. "I had two years in high school," he said. "I can't read it now, but I can pronounce it well enough."
"That's all you need to do," Field said. Using the pen from his shirt pocket, he wrote in a sprawling hand, O spiritus Neyilon et Achalas, accipite sacrificium ut nihil contra me et contra clavem istum valeat.
He handed the sheet to Aubrey and said, "You're just asking a pair of demiurges to accept a sacrifice and not allow anything to stand against you and the key. The sacrifice is the white cockerel whose throat I cut when I made the Key of Pluto. "
He paused to reach onto one of the higher cells of the egg-crate and brought down a heavy piece of iron.
"Which is this."
The object had a loop handle and a crossbar two-thirds of the way down the shaft. It was rusty, and the crossbar had been crudely pinned and welded to the shaft.
"The key has to be made from a piece of metal found by chance," Field explained. "What I found was a railroad spike by the right-of-way where some track had been replaced. That was thirty years ago, just before the war started, and I've never had cause to use it since... but I think this is the time."
"Why did you make it if you weren't going to use it?" said Becca.
Field grimaced. It was a question he'd have preferred not to be asked, but he'd always said that if you can do a thing, you ought to be able to man up to what you'd done.
"Louise and I didn't have a child and we wanted one," he said, his eyes on the Key rather than on his visitors. "I made the Key to open a way for the child. Before I used it, though, I thought again and decided that we'd regret anything we got by that method."
He looked directly at Becca. "We never had children," he said, "and that was a pain to both of us, especially as we got older. It's a worse pain to me now that Louise is gone and I'm alone. But I think I made the right decision."
Field turned sharply to Aubrey and said, "And I think you'd be wiser not to use the Key of Pluto as well, but we've had that discussion. Bring the spell and the Bosch out to the shed, and I'll bring the Key."
A ragged straw hat hung from a coat rack in the corner between the egg-crate and the rarely used front door. Field hesitated, then put the hat on and led the way back through the kitchen. A little extra luck couldn't hurt.
"Will we need hats?" Aubrey said. He paused to let Becca go ahead of him as Field held the outside door open. "The sun isn't bad, and you said we'd be inside."
"This was my father's from Brazil," Field explained, closing the door as he followed the boy out. He touched the brim. The individual palm fibers had been split so fine that they might have passed for linen. "The band's from the skin of the snake that bit me, though it lost its colors long ago. I broke its back with a canoe paddle before I passed out, and the Campas skinned it for my father."
The Campas had also eaten the snake's flesh, he was sure. Protein was scarce in the great forest.
Field opened one door of the shed and Aubrey swung the other back. They were both working one-handed: the boy hadn't given the painting to Becca, nor had Field put the key in a pocket of his jacket.
Field was used to working inside the shed, but it looked tight when he saw it with the eyes of a host. The anvil was in the middle of the space, now; he'd moved it forward to take advantage of the light through the doorway. There might be enough room still, but...
Field looked at the boy, waiting with him on the threshold. "Give me the picture to hold and slide the anvil toward the back to give us some elbow-room," he said. "And then fetch the charcoal grill that hangs on the wall there, if you would."
Aubrey handed over the Bosch without hesitation and stepped into the shed. He tested the anvil's weight by pressing the sole of his shoe--he wore ankle boots--against the base. Then he bent over and pushed it all the way to the back wall in a single smooth motion, never losing the inertia after he'd gotten it moving.
Field watched the process with a grim smile. When he was Aubrey's age, he could do the same easily; but he hadn't been that age for forty years and more. He wouldn't trade his present wisdom and experience to be young again, but there were times he missed his youth nonetheless.
Everything came with a cost. That was more true of experience than of most other things.
Aubrey lifted the charcoal grill from its hook above the workbench. Becca said, "Why do we need that? Are you going to cook something?"
"In a manner of speaking," Field said. "I've spells written on shavings of rowan wood. We'll set them to char and let the smoke touch us before we open the Bosch. Try to open it, anyway. There may be some protection in the smoke, and I'm not in a mood to turn down even a little help in this business."
He didn't add that he had a bad feeling about it, but he surely did. The boy was fixed in his purpose, so there was no point in talking further about the risk.
Field looked at Becca, wondering if it would have been safe to let this Jimmie Walsh do the conjuration. Probably not; and anyway, he'd given his word.
"Want me to put this outside, Gee?" Aubrey asked, hefting the little grill.
"I'll light it, first," Field said, bending to get the bag of charcoal under the workbench. Aubrey took back the painting while Field filled the grill--the brazier, rather, for he'd removed the grill itself so that there was only the pan for charcoal. He took a book of paper matches from his pocket.
"Shouldn't you use some kindling?" Aubrey said. He looked around for old newspapers or something else suitable.
Smiling, Field lit the Bunsen burner, then played its flame over the briquettes until hints of white ash appeared. He shut off the burner--it was fed by a twenty-gallon tank under the workbench--and carried the brazier by two legs into the driveway between the shed and the Buick's front bumper.
"Now," Field said, stepping back into the shed, "we'll get the picture ready for the ceremony. Set it on the bench there with the cloth under it for a pad."
The boy obeyed. Becca was standing very close to him, her hand on his left arm. Her expression was tight with concern. Field didn't think it was the spell that worried her: Becca didn't really believe in magic, not as anything more than a horror movie safely at a distance on the screen. But she could tell that Aubrey had completely forgotten about her, for the time at least.
"Now," said Field. "Put the dog-tags and medal back around the painting the way they were when you found the picture in the safety deposit box."
"No!" said Becca, as Field had thought she would. "Not the medal!"
"Particularly the medal," Field said, directing his words at Aubrey, not the girl. He stood straight, as though he were being sworn in before testifying in court. "You said your father believed that the medal saved him in battle. Silver has value, and perhaps a saint's image does as well; but belief has the most value of all. Your father believed the medal would protect the world against the Bosch, and thus far it's done just that."
"No, I won't!" Becca said, pulling the chain taut while she clutched the tags and medal in both hands. "Aubrey, we're married! You said I could have them!"
"You can have them back after we're finished, Becca," Aubrey said. His tone was harsh, dismissive. "I need them now."
"They can't ever be taken away from the picture again," Field said. He didn't raise his voice, but there was no give in it. "Not when it's open. I'm not sure the picture's really safe now, but it lasted five hundred years without doing worse than giving a couple soldiers bad dreams. If I unlock it, then I don't know what will come out unless it's bound by your father's belief."
"I'm going," Becca said. Field stepped aside so as not to block the doorway, but Aubrey gripped the girl's shoulder. When she tried to twist away, Aubrey jerked her back to him. She yelped in pain and tried to peel his hand away with both of hers.
"You'll take the chain off now or I'll take it off you!" Aubrey shouted. He raised his other hand with the fist clenched.
Field poised to grab Aubrey's arm if he actually struck the girl. Field hadn't warmed to Becca and he didn't have any illusions about being able to hold the younger man in a temper like his present one, but he wasn't going to die remembering that he hadn't tried to stop a man from beating a woman.
"You can have it!" Becca shrieked. "Go on and take it, then!"
She pulled back, lifting the chain, tags and medal over her head. Field thought for a moment that she was going to fling them away, but instead she simply held them out.
Aubrey took them from her hands without a word. Becca moved deeper into the shed, rubbing her shoulder with the other hand. She might have a bruise, but she didn't appear to be seriously injured.
Aubrey lifted the painting and laid the doubled chain on the cloth, then ran the tags and medal over the face of the painting and laced them through the loop underneath. He stepped away and turned to Field.
"That's how it was," he said. "Except the towel was wrapped around it and I couldn't see what was underneath. I didn't know what was on the chain until I took it out of the lock-box."
"We won't need the cloth," Field said, pursing his lips. "It doesn't add protection, and it may be that there'll be changes in how the painting looks that we'll want to know about."
He decided to leave the Key of Pluto on the workbench where he'd set it. It was as safe there as it had been on the shelf in the living room for these thirty past years.
"We'll use the protective spells, then," Field said. "Come out to the fire."
He glanced at Aubrey and added, "Unless you've changed your mind. Then we could avoid a bit of smoke."
He grinned to show that he was joking. When Aubrey saw the smile, his expression changed from a scowl to neutral, though he sounded a little strained when he muttered, "No, I don't mind smoke."
They stood opposite one another on the east and west sides of the brazier. The mild breeze was from the south--from the Buick toward the shed--though it wasn't enough to blow a flag out from its pole. It would drift the smoke, though, which was all that was required.
Field brought a paper lunch bag from his left jacket pocket as Becca joined them. She stood near Field this time instead of joining her boyfriend--husband?--on the other side. She was still rubbing her shoulder.
Field pinched half the rowan shavings out of the bag and sprinkled them on the charcoal. Those that landed on ash where the briquettes were fully lighted began to smolder at once. The spells he'd written in a crabbed hand were illegible even to himself on the curling rowan, but they stood out as shimmering lines while the wood charred beneath the India ink.
Field shook out the rest of the shavings and stuffed the empty bag back into his pocket. He'd readied them three nights ago to use the Mirror of Lylit, but he could make more at leisure.
The wood didn't flare up. He'd soaked the shavings in water so that he could hold them flat while he wrote, and they were still a little damp.
"Stand in the smoke, both of you," Field said, stepping to his left to put himself between the charcoal and the shed. Some of the smoke would be going inside the shed also, which couldn't hurt.
Becca sneezed. "It's bitter," she said. "How does this help?"
"It's protection," Field said. "It's like a raincoat against hostile magic, I suppose you could say."
And like a raincoat, it was useful in a drizzle but a real downpour would overwhelm it. You do what you can, he thought.
Field took the nearer hand of each of the couple in one of his, Aubrey with his left and the girl with his right. He stifled a sneeze, then said in a firm voice, "Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Emanuel Paraclitus, protegite nos!"
Becca pulled away. Field released the boy's hand also and said, "We're as ready as we can be. Let's go into the shed."
Field led the way. Aubrey was expressionless; Becca seemed angry, but that was understandable.
"Stand in front of the painting," Field said to the boy. "The Key's there on the table. Pick it up in your left hand. When you're ready, move it slowly from left to right across the painting and read the spell. Keep reading the spell until I tell you to stop."
Becca stood in the doorway, but after a moment she came in and slipped to the back. She didn't touch Aubrey this time either. The distance between them at this moment was wider than the few physical inches.
Aubrey picked up the Key, pausing for a moment at the weight. Field remembered how much work it had been to saw and forge the thick steel, then to drill it to pin the cut-off crossbar to the remainder of the spike, now the shaft.
He wished he hadn't made the Key, but then he would have to make it now; otherwise the boy would go to Becca's brother, which would be worse. If this attempt failed--if the Key of Pluto didn't open whatever was hidden in the painting--then Field wasn't worried about anything a couple of drug dealers were capable of doing.
"O spiritus Neyilon et Achalas," Aubrey said, moving the Key slowly in his hand. "Accipite sacrificium ut nihil contra me et contra clavem istum valeat."
Nothing happened. The boy looked at Field.
"Keep speaking the spell!" Field said. He didn't want this to work, but it had to be carried out properly before he could be sure that it didn't work. "And don't let the Key move right to left, just hold it fixed when you've finished the motion."
"O spiritus Neyilon et Achalas, accipite sacrificium ut nihil contra me et contra clavem istum valeat," the boy repeated, speaking so quickly that he slurred the words together this time. The painted Virgin seemed to be fading. "O spiritus Neyilon et Achalas, accipite--"
The shed's walls and metal roof seemed to expand to the volume of a cathedral. The painting was no longer there. The open doorway and the world beyond had vanished, but everything was suffused with blurred light.
A creature crawled up through the blank rectangle which had been a painting. Its gray skin was covered with shaggy black hair. Its head--his head; the creature's genitalia were prominent--was vaguely doglike with large, round ears, flaring nostrils, and two bony lumps on the forehead which might have been horns.
The teeth in the long jaws were spikes the length and thickness of a man's thumbs. The demon's open mouth stank like a St. Louis slaughterhouse on a hot August day.
Field didn't know where he was standing now: the shed and its contents had vanished. Around the demon and the three humans was a pebble-strewn plain. Though the demon's squat body stood on short legs, it was taller than either of the men.
A pink penis extended six inches from its sheath, standing out vividly against the demon's black fur. The creature reached for Becca, roaring in triumph. She threw her hands up and the creature recoiled with a startled yelp.
"Hey!" Aubrey shouted, thrusting his left hand toward the demon's throat. Though the Key didn't have any magical value in the present situation, it was still a length of railroad spike.
The demon's arms were much longer than the boy's. It lifted him by both shoulders and shook him. The Key of Pluto flew from his hand, though heaven knew where it went. It should have clanged off the roof, but there was only a gray sky in this place.
Field had the revolver out of his right jacket pocket. He reached past Aubrey's flailing legs and fired. The muzzle was so close to the demon's chest that the red flash ignited a patch of fur.
The demon bellowed and flung Aubrey aside. It reached for Field, who now didn't have to worry about hitting the boy. He fired three times more, as fast as his finger could pull the trigger. He held his arm out straight as he'd been taught, but he couldn't pretend he was really trying to keep the sights aligned.
At this range, it didn't matter. All three bullets hit the demon within a handspan of its breastbone. For an instant Field thought he saw the flames of Hell blazing through the four holes which the silver-jacketed bullets had punched in the shaggy hide. The demon dwindled away like mist in bright sunlight, leaving behind only the stench of sulphur.
Field leaned against the shelving on the wall opposite the workbench. His whole body was trembling. He thrust the revolver back into his jacket pocket, finding the opening with difficulty.
There were still two live rounds in the cylinder. He didn't want to chance firing again by accident if he continued to hold the weapon in his hand.
Those were the last two silver-jacketed rounds Field had prepared. He needed to finish the set of reloads he'd been working on when his visitors arrived; but not today, and perhaps not tomorrow. He was as tired as if he'd been tied to the bumper of a truck and had been running to keep up.
The workshed looked just as it had when they'd entered it a few minutes earlier; there was no sign of the demon. The Bosch painting was as it had been also. Wherever the demon had come from, it wasn't through the physical layer of paint.
Aubrey lay face-up on the floor, his eyes closed. The Key of Pluto was near his outstretched right hand. Field knelt carefully beside the boy and touched his throat. Though Aubrey was unconscious, his carotid pulse was strong and regular.
Both shoulders of his vest and open-necked shirt were ripped. Field fingered the edge of a torn patch. The leather seemed to have been seared or rotted; his touch made more crumble away. Aubrey's shoulders were red and swollen, but the demon's hands--two fingers and a thumb, all armed with claws--hadn't broken the skin.
Becca lowered her hands. Her sneeze seemed to surprise her as much as it did Field. Aubrey moaned without opening his eyes.
"What was that?" Becca said in a husky whisper. She looked at the painting, but there was nothing in it now to frighten her.
"That was the demon Hieronymus Bosch painted a Virgin over to keep where it was," Field said, rising to his feet even more cautiously than he had knelt. "The demon I released, because I'm a damned fool and I humored a boy who didn't know any better."
He lifted the painting from its pad of towel, sliding it out through the looped chain. The dog-tags were underneath, but the chain's catch had been opened and the silver medal was missing.
He set the painting down again. "Let me see your hands," he said. His voice was on the edge of control. "Open them now."
"I won't!" Becca said, her voice rising. "It's mine and he gave it to me. It's our wedding ring!"
Field stepped toward her. Becca lunged toward the door, but she stepped on Aubrey's out-flung arm and stumbled.
Field grabbed her left wrist before she got upright. He squeezed and twisted; for a moment, he wasn't an old man.
With a scream, Becca opened her hand; the St Christopher medal dropped to the floor. Field scooped it up. He dropped it into his pants pocket, where it clinked against his keys.
Becca got to her feet. She stared at Field, but she said nothing until he picked up the painting again.
"What are you doing?" she said as Field walked out of the shed.
"What should have been done five hundred years ago," Field said. "Maybe Hieronymus Bosch had a reason to keep it around, but I don't and the world doesn't."
"You can't!" Becca said, her voice shrill again. "It's worth thousands!"
"It's not worth that boy's soul," Field said, his eyes on the girl. He could imagine her picking up the hammer he'd been using on dimes and hitting him if he turned his back. "And that's what he almost paid."
He set the painting on the charcoal, wriggling it down into the heart of the fire. Only when he was sure the panel had caught did he jerk his hands away from the heat.
The paint suddenly blazed up. Beneath it Field saw for an instant the lowering demon he had sent away; then that too was gone.
He hadn't destroyed the demon, but he had closed forever the portal by which it had been reaching the waking world. The panel on which Bosch had painted the Virgin continued to crackle, but only wood was burning now.
Becca had followed him out of the shed. "What are you going to do now?" she asked in a small voice.
"Take the boy up the street to Doc Wagner," Field said. He was feeling more like himself again. "He's always home on Sunday afternoons; that's when his daughter and the grandkids visit. I don't guess there's any need for a hospital, but I'll let the doc decide that."
He started back to the shed. Aubrey rose to one elbow, then clutched his arms to his chest with a gasp of pain and collapsed again.
"Professor?" Becca said, her eyes on the gravel driveway. "What are you going to tell Aubrey?"
Field stopped and looked at her. She seemed suddenly vulnerable.
"I'm going to tell him the truth," he said quietly. "I always tell the truth. I don't have to worry about keeping my stories straight that way, and it stops people who know me from asking me questions they don't really want the answers to."
Becca snuffled and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She was crying. Field thought it was the first thing he'd seen her do that wasn't theatrical.
She'll keep behaving like that all her life, Field thought. Because she's self-centered and not very bright.
But Becca wasn't actually evil; and she looked a great deal like a girl named Slowly Kimber, whom Field had known a lifetime ago. He fished in his pocket and brought out his key ring; from it he removed the Buick's ignition key. There was a spare in the house, but he didn't want to go inside just now.
"Here," he said. "Do you know where the bus station is?"
He tossed the key to Becca. She looked surprised but caught it between her hands.
"On Franklin Street?" she said. "I guess."
Field dropped his key ring back on top of the St. Christopher medal and drew his old black wallet from his hip pocket. "I want you to leave the car in the street there," he said. "Put the key under the floormat. You catch the first bus out of here, wherever it happens to be going."
"I don't have any money!" Becca said.
Field took a pair of fifty dollar bills from his wallet and held them out between the index and middle finger of his left hand. He wasn't a wealthy man, but he could afford this.
"These should tide you over," he said. "And just so you know: if the Buick isn't where it's supposed to be when Doc Wagner and I come to pick it up this evening, the Highway Patrol will be looking for you and a stolen car. Understood?"
Becca hesitated for a moment. Aubrey mumbled something, though Field couldn't catch the words. The girl snatched the money from Field's hand and got into the Buick. It started with a roar and spattered gravel as she reversed out the drive.
Field watched Becca go. She hadn't said anything. He hadn't expected thanks, but there'd beem a better than fair chance that she'd be shouting curses as she drove off. Silence was fine.
This might cost him a car, but Field didn't worry about that. Right after seeing a demon closer than ever before in an eventful life, he couldn't get too worked up about material things.
Aubrey sat up. He looked groggy, but he had his normal color back in place of his clammy whiteness just after the demon threw him down.
"What happened?" he said.
"You fought a demon," Field said, helping the boy to his feet. "The demon lost. If you'll give me your car keys, I'll take you over to a friend of mine's. I don't think you're ready to drive just yet."
Aubrey reached into the side-pocket of his jeans. He winced, but his shoulders seemed to be all right except for bruising. As he handed over the keys, he looked around. "Where's Becca?" he said.
"We'll discuss that over a drink," Field said, starting up the drive beside the younger man. "After my friend takes a look at your shoulder."
Field looked back as he got into the Ford. The shed doors were open, but that was all right. It would air out the sulphur fumes, and perhaps it would clear memories of something worse.
Copyright © 2013 by David Drake
David Drake is the creator of the RCN and Hammer’s Slammers science fiction series, as well as a new collection of dark fantasy, horror, and alternate history tales, Night and Demons.