Sherill said nothing, only watched, as Earl knelt hunched over on the floor. He grunted and cursed as he reached his hand back into the dark hole in the wall. Sherill could hardly hold back her laughter as she noticed that Earl’s pants were slowly inching downward, his plumber’s crack showing between his belt and the bottom of his shirt.
After some time, Earl pulled his hand out of the hole and pushed himself up from the ground. He sighed, wiped his dirty hands off on his tan pants, and shook his head.
“What’s wrong?” Sherill asked. She crossed her arms, trying to put the image of the ass-crack out of her mind.
Earl took his cell phone out of his pocket and flipped the old model open, shuffling through his contacts list with a groan. “It’s just real unlucky, is all. Gonna have to call Terry.”
“Terry? Who’s he?”
Earl put the phone up to his cheek, a number selected. “He takes care of cases like these.”
Lifting an eyebrow, Sherill asked, “Like these? I thought you said you were the best in the business? Why are you calling some other guy?”
“Look…” Earl sighed, perturbed by Sherill’s anxiousness. “99 percent of cases, we’ve got this handled on our own. The last 1 percent, however, we don’t mess around with. We hand it off to Terry who, by the way, doesn’t do anything about the 99 percent. Now hush up while I speak to the man.”
Earl listened to the phone as a deep-voiced man answered, then replied, “Hey, Terry – yep, it’s me, Earl! Hey, listen man… I got a job for ya.”
Sherill rolled her eyes. She was supposed to be training now to be an employee of ‘Earl’s Excellent Extermination,’ not sitting and waiting as Earl – the best in the business, as he had touted himself during the sham of an ‘interview’ – called some man to shovel his work off on. Were they even going to get paid for this? Earl had already given an address, told about the state of the house and all the damage he’d seen.
“Uh-oh… that don’t sound good. You want I should clear the customers out, tell them they need to be fumigated?”
They better be paid if they even unrolled the fumigation tents. Sherill hadn’t helped put up a tent yet, but it looked like it would be difficult. This was the first day of training, after all, and she wasn’t ready for that.
“Alright. Yeah – fifty percent sound good…? No, I don’t think these people would be okay with turning direct over to you. They’d think you’s loony… Alright then. I’ll tell the girl you’ll be here in about ten minutes.”
Earl hung up the phone, flipping the cover shut before he put it back in his pocket. He shook his head morosely.
“What are you doing?” Sherill asked, “We’re getting paid, right? I’m keeping my job?”
Earl took out a little notepad and checked a few of the pre-printed boxes, writing up a sum at the bottom of the page. “Sure are getting paid. Terry said he’d like to have an assistant here; I’m going to have you stay here and help him while I go on to the next house, if you’re ok with that.” Earl handed one page to Sherill, putting his pen and pad back up. From his back pocket he withdrew a round can of dip, opening it to remove a pinch of nicotine. Sherill found the habit disgusting.
“Is this part of my training?”
“Eh… sure. Watch what he does, recognize some of the signs that you need to call him. You’ll need to know those things in the future. Give this to the owners when they come back – say it was an emergency to their health, that you hope this will all be done soon but they need to leave for a few hours. Be creative – just get them out.”
Earl moved to leave, so Sherill looked at the piece of paper. Earl had checked off several boxes such that the sum at the end of the tab was quite large.
“What’s the problem here? What’s infesting this house such that you need to charge them all these things?” Sherill asked, following Earl out a little ways.
Earl shook his head and patted Sherill condescendingly on the shoulder. “Any exterminator can take care of 99 percent of all cases. What makes us the best, the most excellent, is that we know when to call Terry. It’s good that you’re going to get this experience early, first thing even. This 1 percent is what makes ‘Earl’s Excellent Extermination’ the best.”
“But what are we exterminating here?”
“Don’t know. Not exactly, anyway. Just trust me on this and help Terry out. Don’t worry about this – you’ll come out safe, I promise.”
Sherill stood still as Earl walked out the door. Eyebrow raised and little tab of paper clutched in her hands, she asked, “What?”
It was too late, though. By the time Sherill brought herself out of her stupor, Earl had hopped back in the company truck and was driving off. She bit her knuckles as she wondered what was happening; the homeowners certainly wouldn’t be happy with this turn of events. She paced the front porch, making sure not to let the door close and lock behind her. Earl hadn’t left her with a key, after all, and the homeowner wasn’t around right now to deal with her.
She looked around the house and saw the signs of pests: spilled food, chewed and broken wires, holes in the walls… She would have set several traps and been on her way. If it hadn’t worked, she would have called to fumigate the place. What was Terry going to do that was so special?
It didn’t take long, however, for a small car to come puttering up the drive. The small, red vehicle cast up a cloud of dust on the gravel road as it approached the paved circle just in front of the building. Sherill held open the door as a tall, white man with tired eyes stepped out of the old, boxy car. Other than the worn appearance, the man dressed something more similar to an accountant than an exterminator. He pulled a briefcase made of dark leather from the passenger seat before he closed the door, walking around the front of the Ford Pinto. His eyes met Sherill’s as he walked forward, prompting her to open the door behind which she stood and watched the stranger.
As he got closer, though, something seemed even stranger about him. His hair was well kempt, a dark blonde, his chin was tapered, and his body was thin. Yet, there was a darkness to the man that Sherill couldn’t explain.
“Terry?” she asked, “Are you the guy that Earl is giving this job to?”
The man nodded and took the door, allowing himself in. He sniffed the air and looked around the hallway.
“Earl was right to call,” he immediately said, British pronunciation altering his words, “This is something mortals shouldn’t be dealing with.”
He walked quickly down the hall and examined the walls as Sherill closed the door. He rubbed the paper and sniffed while he closed his eyes, allowing the breath to exit from him slowly before continuing his journey through the house.
Sherill didn’t understand his mad methods. “What are you doing?”
The man didn’t respond, just pulled the door handle that led to the basement. “Down here,” he said. He waved for Sherill to follow, but she stood resolute on the first floor.
“What are you even doing? You’re crazy. The biggest portions of the damage are in the bedrooms and the kitchen.”
“I take it you’re new to the business?” Terry asked.
“Yes,” Sherill answered, perturbed that Terry would pick on her inexperience so easily, “But even I can tell that what you’re doing is nonsense. And ‘mortals shouldn’t be dealing with’ this? What kind of nonsense was that?”
Terry stood straight and held his briefcase by his side. He looked to his watch, then to the door that led outside. “Earl obviously hasn’t told you what kind of work I do. Let’s start afresh, shall we?”
He held out his hand, but Sherill backed away. “I don’t know what kind of person you are, but you’re acting pretty creepy – and I’ve known some creepy guys before.”
“Apologies,” Terry said. He took his hand away and remained standing straight. “I am Terence Davies – hunter of the immortal, diviner of spirits, and the first number on speed dial for every exterminator. And you, my dear, are?”
Sherill rolled her eyes. “You are a nut.”
“I could say that most people are nuts, dear, instead. I’m sure that Earl gave you the spiel about how 99 percent of his cases are pests he can deal with, but I have to deal with the 1 percent remaining?”
Sherill nodded. “Yes – he did – which means you’re both crazy. If I weren’t desperate for money, I’d call Earl on his cell phone and quit right now. Hunter of the immortal and diviner of spirits… good luck, you’re on your own.”
“If I’m right, though, I’ll need your assistance; it’ll be good money for you. Earl usually gives the assistants that remain with me the entirety of the portion he earns from these cases. After all, you’ll be the one doing the work, not him. A rather good chap, that Earl. Actually cares about his employees. Willing to hire sprightly little things such as yourself.”
Sherill didn’t move. She had this sick desire to hear what Terry – Terence Davies, this Brit – had to say.
“Customers call me to drive off ghosts. I’d say 99 percent of the time, I call people like Earl, or other exterminators, and collect a small portion of the profit. The remaining 1 percent, however, I do the work and finish off the infringing spirits. Exterminators, like yourself, supply me with far more – and more accurate – hunts. I’d say, in that case, that most people are crazy – very few people can adequately determine whether their home is infested with poltergeists or parasites. It seems a rather large difference, don’t you think?”
Sherill rolled her eyes. “Right. And you can tell the difference by sniffing the air.”
“Well… I can. I can tell that whatever is causing these people’s problems is coming up from the basement, projecting its spirit out of a place in which it is trapped.”
“You’re telling me there are ghosts in the basement?”
Terry laughed. “Oh, good heavens, no. This has got to be something much worse.”
Her interest piqued, if only because there was both a promise of money to go along with the man’s assured nature, Sherill let her crossed arms fall and her demeanor soften. “Fine,” she gave in, “Show me what’s going on. Prove that it’s something supernatural.”
Terry didn’t seem surprised. “Right then; off to the basement, shall we?”
The basement was dark, but Terry didn’t flip the light switch. He continued down the stairs in the darkness, touching the handrails carefully as he stepped down.
“I can’t see anything down there; shoudn’t we turn on the lights?”
“No!” he shouted up, “I’ve got a torch in my case – that will be more than sufficient. Shut the door; as strange as it is, spirits have a more difficult time traveling through solid objects. We don’t want to give the thing too much opportunity to escape.”
The basement darkened completely as the last of the light was squeezed down to a tiny sliver underneath the door. “A torch?” Sherill asked, hoping the man had one, “You going to light it, soon?”
“Oh – oh, yes… here we are. I’ve got it now. It’s one of those electric torches – flashlights, you people call them. There’s the button.”
The halogen light brightened the stairwell just enough for Sherill to find her way down. The stairs were old, just as the house was, making Sherill wonder what kind of ghosts were supposedly haunting the place. The floor of the basement was dirt, not even covered over in a layer of cement as most basements were. The dampness of the air underneath the house had the slight smell of mold, making her feel dirty and uncomfortable.
“What we looking for? Dead Confederate soldiers?”
Terry shook his head. “No; not this time. Though a good guess.”
“Oh God, we’re looking for Union?”
Terry chuckled. “No, nothing to do with your American Civil War, even as much as you southerners like to focus on it. That war churned up thousands of ghosts and poltergeists, yes, but this is far more ancient, far more… important.”
Terry turned the flashlight to a portion of the basement in which a horde of junk was piled. He clicked his tongue and shook his head as he walked forward, pulling a large chunk of the mess forward by altering the position of a huge chest.
“What? Is that pile of stuff what’s haunting this place?”
“No, dear girl. I was afraid of something like this – it’s something you Americans tend to ignore. It’s what’s buried beneath this pile of stuff. These objects are rich, old, filled with emotions from times past – the spirits locked beneath this house have been feeding off that energy and, finally, are strong enough to start beginning their escape. It is good I was called early like this; whatever’s beneath this ground, it’s quite powerful.”
“Then what is it? The Revolution didn’t come through this place,” Sherill said. She took a hold of an old box covered in dust and mold, sneezing as she moved the thing. She wondered when the homeowners would arrive, whether or not she should leave Terry and his flashlight to continue this work.
“I think there are native kings buried underneath here. You Americans tend to ignore the thousands of years of history before the whites came across the pond; rather Eurocentric thinking that’s gotten you in trouble a couple times, hm?”
“Indians had chiefs, not kings.”
Terry took his hands and swept away some of the dirt on the floor. “I doubt that the natives knew of either word, chief or king. As I used it, it’s a term to describe the type of spirit that resides here. This house is like an Egyptian pyramid, like Avalon, like the the enormous mausoleums of China. There must have been a burial mound here, long forgotten, where the revenants lie restless. Look; there’s been some significant workings going on beneath us.”
As Terry pointed with his flashlight, Sherill saw that the earth looked freshly overturned where there had, just recently, been a full, heavy chest and several boxes full of photographs and old toys. It seemed rather odd that Terry could have so quickly found the mysterious plot of dirt, but Sherill wasn’t yet convinced that she should tamper with the moldy basement.
“So what are we going to do?” she asked.
“Dig,” Terry answered. He scanned the basement and found a couple of shovels, grabbing them and handing one to Sherill. Sherill took the handle of the shovel and began to overturn the loose clay, finding the work rather easy. She’d done manual labor more difficult than this before – this would be easy.
After quite some amount of digging, Terry’s shovel fell through the floor and into a hollow space. He shoveled out a bit more dirt before motioning that Sherill finish emptying the spot while he shined the light on the place. Beneath appeared to be a cavern large enough to walk in, a dirt floor made of the same red clay the basement was dug into.
“What… what is this?” Sherill asked, finally believing that Terry at least knew what was going on. It couldn’t have been coincidence that he’d found this ancient passage.
“No society has ever wanted, or even really expected, their dead to come back from the grave. No – this is a recent excavation dug from the inside rather than a tunnel made by men to go back to the realm of the dead. Definitely the work of zombie kings.”
Terry jumped into the recently made hole and disappeared, only the light shining back up the shaft.
“You coming?” Terry shouted back, “I’m afraid I will need your assistance here.”
“How will we get back up?”
“I wouldn’t worry about that. I’d worry more about how close to escaping the kings were – a few mere feet! We must go put them to rest, seal them away for good.”
Sherill considered leaving Terry and going to meet the homeowner. Traveling down a passage filled with undead – whether the truth or not – seemed like a fantastically terrible idea.
“I… Earl told me to get the homeowners this note-”
“He told me you’d be my assistant. Now come along; I’m going to need you, Sherill.”
Sherill tossed down her shovel and stumbled over some boxes as she tried to feel her way to the stairs. Terry’s light moved, though, as she heard the man grunt to lift himself from the hole. She saw the way forward and tried to get up to escape. She felt a grasping hand around her ankle, though, and she screamed. She clawed the dirt, but gravity and Terry pulled against her.
“Terry – God, Terry, what are you doing?!”
“Earl promised me your assistance. Come along.”
“Screw you! I signed up to be an exterminator, driving a truck full of poison and spraying people’s houses with it, not crawling around in… in crypts!”
“You honestly believe me to expect that’s all you wanted out of life?” Terry asked. “You’re not an idiot, Sherill.”
Sherill shook her head. Something was horribly wrong. “I… I don’t think I ever told you my name! Let me go – what are you?”
Terry let go of her and kept walking down the tunnel.
“What is wrong with you, you stupid Brit?!” Sherill called, “You dragged me down into this pit for what purpose?”
Terry turned his face, briefly, to her. He smiled. “I told you, first thing I believe, that this wasn’t a task for mortals. Unfortunately for us both, you’re a mere mortal. I think I can make do, though… Here. You know how to work a gun?”
Sherill shook in place. “What are you?”
“Do you know how to work a gun? A shotgun, specifically?”
Sherill tried to reach up to the hole she’d dug earlier, but she was too short. She’d need Terry’s height to get out.
“Sherill, I need an answer. If you can’t do this, we need to start filling this hole back in, and quickly, so we have more time while I search out another person willing to help me.”
Sherill looked up at Terry’s tall face and balled her hand into a fist. Though he was bigger than her – and crazier, by a long shot – she’d risk trying to knock him out then scream for help later.
“I don’t know what’s going on. I’m supposed to wander around in some ancient crypt, take part in some crazy ritual, you think you’re immortal-”
“No, goodness no… I’m not immortal.”
“Then how are we supposed to finish this task you’ve set for us!? Tell me, straight, what we’re supposed to do if you want my help. Otherwise, get me out of here,” Sherill demanded.
“Your job would be to shoot any zombies – I would take the finishing blow on those you disable, seeing as you are unfamiliar with these rituals. The undead will be severely disabled for a few days, allowing us more than enough time to get to the central crypt. There, we will find the king – or kings, as the case may be – and sap their power from them. You shouldn’t be in terrible danger – I am well practiced, you’ll have a gun.”
Terry tossed the gun, with twelve rounds in the magazine, for Sherill to catch.
“You’re hiding something from me,” Sherill said, pointing the gun at Terry.
“Of course I am. Are you going to come help?”
Terry pulled a long, jagged knife from the briefcase and dropped the leather box. He carried the flashlight in his left, the dagger in his right, and turned to the deepening tunnel.
Sherill followed. The light followed Terry, darkness swept around her. She couldn’t let the light go away so easily. She pointed the shotgun before her and walked alongside Terry, following deeper into the crypt. As she did, it became apparent that the crypt had been dug by nails, hands, and fingers. Broken ornaments littered the floor the further down they went, the deeper they got.
Terry picked up an ancient blue ornament that had been split down the middle. “Talismans meant to keep the dead in their graves were broken… it’s been hundreds of years since these zombies have seen light, what with the power behind these talismans. We’ve got to work quickly.”
Sherill held her gun tight and looked around her, but there was nowhere for a zombie to be. The deeper they got, the more talismans there were. The narrow tunnel eventually broadened so that the flashlight didn’t illuminate the entirety of the hallway very well.
“We’re close,” Terry mentioned.
A strange call came from deeper in the tunnel, echoing on the walls. Sherill stopped when she heard it again, holding the gun.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” Terry answered, “This king doesn’t speak English – I can’t tell. But it knows we’re here and I don’t need to understand its words to know that it’s tone is that of anger. Stay close.”
“Wasn’t going to argue with that,” Sherill said.
Water dripped on the walls as Sherill tromped through the mud. The hallway broadened out suddenly as the sound of dripping, gurgling water became more vivid. Terry’s flashlight shined brightly, showing the magnificent box in the middle of the room. An underground waterfall surrounded the room, clean liquid refracted the light all around the tomb.
It would have been pretty if not for what was clearly a zombie standing in the middle of the room.
Sherill screamed and nearly dropped her gun, but her fingers froze on the trigger. She fought through the fear and aimed, shooting the gun before ejecting the shell with the pump action.
“Keep it going, Sherill!” Terry shouted. He ran forward with the dagger, causing the flashlight to wave erratically, making Sherill’s shots more difficult to line up. She took aim once more and pulled the trigger, hoping she hit the undead monster. She fired again and again, counting carefully the number of shells she had remaining.
With seven left, the flashlight fell and shined back at her face, Terry disappearing. Sherill whimpered, unable to see the enemy, and put her back up against a wall, hoping that would give her the greatest defense against the zombie. She breathed heavily as she heard the shouts of the zombie in its ancient language, the funny and odd cursing of a British man as he struggled against the undead enemy.
After what seemed a torturous amount of time, she heard a gurgling, choking sound, then silence.
“Terry?” she asked, “Terry – are you there?”
“Yes – I’m quite well! The bloody thing was strong, though. We need to work quickly; this king has been long biding his time, storing up his power. It won’t stay down for long.”
Terry grabbed up the light and turned it to the zombie, who appeared to have been shot and sliced several times. Sherill went closer to the light and examined their handiwork as Terry got closer, then as he dragged the zombie back to its grave. Something was strange about how he was holding the light.
“There – we’ve done it. Get me a couple of rocks that fit well in the palm of your hand; we need to bust open his skull.”
“What? Why?” Sherill asked, Terry still in the dark as his hands deftly searched the rags that covered the zombie’s body.
“It’s the only way to dissipate – never mind… it needs a longer explanation that we have time for. Quickly, now!”
Sherill looked around and found a couple of acceptable stones, placing them in the light where Terry could easily find them. He took one stone then put it down, finding the other to be more adequate.
“This will do.”
He swung it down hard against the zombie king’s head, breaking the skull so that the mummified brains were apparent. He beat the head in again, then began grinding the bones into dust. He placed the flashlight down, away from his zombie experiment.
“Go – leave, if you want. Your job is done,” Terry instructed.
Sherill moved to leave, but she knew it was pointless. She needed Terry to get out. She bent down, picked up the light, and turned it to Terry’s face.
She jumped, shouted in surprise, and caused Terry to shuffle back from her.
“What are you!?” Sherill asked, one last time.
Terry, a lump of dead flesh hanging from his face, took the skin that held his face together and put it back on as he ate the remains of the zombie’s brain.
“I told you,” he explained nonchalantly, “This wasn’t a job for mere mortals. I told you I wasn’t immortal. But… I suppose I am unmortal.”
Sherill backed away, frightened. She felt the gun shake, saw the light of the flashlight waver.
“No – what are you?!”
“A king. Would you like to be a knight?”
Sherill watched as Terry put his face back together and ate more of the enemy king. As the enemy disappeared, so did Terry’s wounds. His eyes looked brighter, his face less darkened and gloomy. Sherill held the shotgun tight and knew that Terry was more powerful than the enemy he had just defeated.
“You’d have to quit your current job, of course,” Terry mentioned, stroking his chin with a couple fingers as he finished off the dead king’s brain.
Sherill pulled her trigger quickly, stepping forward to drop Terry. He didn’t emit a noise as she did so, but she screamed as she killed the zombie Brit, his bloodless body falling before her.
She picked up the dagger, stabbed him plentifully, and dropped the long, goo-enveloped blade. She whimpered as she grabbed the rock and, with as much strength as she could muster, beat Terry’s head open just as she had seen him do to the previous king. She scampered backwards through the mud, up to the coffin of the dead king, as she regained her breath. She grabbed the gun and thought about how to get out, wondered if the briefcase Terry – no, the zombie king – had left at the opening of the cavern would be enough to get her out of the deep hole.
Sherill picked up the gun and dagger with one hand, the flashlight with another, and followed the light to the opening in the king’s tomb. She felt scared and dirty, but mostly desired to get out. She followed the cave upward, hurrying as the flashlight dimmed, hoping that she’d find the briefcase and get out.
About halfway up, Sherill heard quick footsteps behind her. She began to run, worried about what was following her.
She tripped, flinging the flashlight and dagger forward, and yelped at her mistake.
A hand reached to her shoulder, making her scream as she turned and pulled the trigger.
The gun clicked, the magazine empty. She hadn’t counted how many shells she’d pumped into Terry.
“Don’t kill me!” she screamed, “I’m still young – I never finished college, this is my first job! I’ve never been married! Oh, God, just let me live!”
Terry looked down at her, took her grimy hand, and pulled her up. He helped her stand when her knees didn’t want to hold her weight. Sherill screamed, finding her wits. She pushed Terry away and reached for the dagger, but he was quicker while she was still somewhat stunned.
“I killed you!” she shouted.
“But you forgot to eat my brain, a fatal mistake against most kings. Eating my brain would have turned you into a zombie king – er, queen, my apologies – but you would have finished me off.”
Sherill held still. “I hate you.”
“Quite understandable. My offer still stands, though; if you ever change your mind, I would most enjoy it if you decided to work with me, killing off rival kings and queens. I’ll forgive your trying to kill me back there, considering that you did just find out I was undead. Here… let me help you.”
Terry handed Sherill the flashlight, but he kept the dagger in his hands. Sherill looked at the man in confusion and fear: his face, though it had been bashed in not thirty minutes ago, was back to normal.
Sherill looked at his face in the light. Something was enticing about the offer to join him.
“What kind of benefits package does your company offer?”
“A 401k with matching. $30,000 a year. Free childcare while you’re on longer adventures – if you get married, of course – and, I promise, I won’t grab your ankles to pull you into holes anymore.”
Sherill held the flashlight and considered what to do. It should have been obvious what path to choose, yet something about Terry’s offer of adventure called to her.
“No,” she answered, “I won’t go with you.”
Terry seemed disappointed. “We have tea and biscuits every afternoon at 4?”
“No,” Sherill demanded.
Terry helped Sherill out of the hole, then she put her arm down to help him get up more easily. He nodded in thanks, then they both filled the hole back in with dirt and trash from the old house.
Terry shook Sherill’s hand to depart, even before the homeowner returned for the bill, and said, “Well… if you ever change your mind, Earl has my number. Good day, madame.”
Terry got back in his Pinto with the contents of his briefcase, cranked the machine back up, and drove away.