The janitor banged all bar one of the toilet cubicle doors.
“That’s closing time. I’m going to step outside for a minute. If you two in stall four don’t want locked in, I’d suggest you take that opportunity.”
As the two students, both red-faced with embarrassment, left the toilets, Mr. Bhansal leaned against the wall by the emergency exit and smiled down at a sleek black cat. “Don’t they have flats they can do that sort of thing in? I’ll bet they’ve left the cubicle in a state too.”
The cat regarded the man, whose blue turban and grey beard contrasted with his brown work coat, before blinking and yawning.
Mr. Bhansal shook his head. “I know I go on about it a lot, but you don’t have to clean up after them. Anyway, that’s it. Almost past nine now, best get this done before we have to lock up.” He pushed his trolley with its mop, bucket, and cleaning fluids into the toilets, tutting at some toilet roll scattered on the floor.
The cat blinked slowly, turned, and headed for the back doors.
Half an hour later, Mr. Bhansal shooed the last of the library staff out of the front door. “Come on, people, don’t you have homes to go to?”
Mrs. Harris stopped at the door. She was the living archetype of a university librarian with her glasses on a chain, pink spiked hair, and heavy boots. “Oh, Mr. Bhansal, how can you sound so cheery?”
The janitor smiled. “It’s that or cry, as my old mum used to say. When you’ve just had to scrub homophobic graffiti from a toilet cubicle door, you try to find the joy in life to compensate. And there was me thinking they were only having sex, too.”
Mrs. Harris shook her head. “I’d much rather they stuck to actively reading books. But then, in my job, you think that about anyone doing anything.”
“True, and not a bad way to be. Anyway, I’m about to get this place to myself and, once I’ve tidied up, there’s a new book on the history of British TV I fancy having a go at. Apparently it has a great section on ‘Bachelors with Spatulas’, one of Fanny Craddock’s less successful shows. I remember watching that with my dad. He’d not have been in Britain ten years and he was fascinated, and a little disturbed, by what people here ate.”
The librarian snorted. “Och, I’m not surprised. Food was all boiled to death or inches deep in butter back in those days. My wife is a big watcher of modern cookery shows and the things she makes from them are so lovely. Full of spices and flavours. I would hate to only have shoe leather steak, prawn cocktail, or broccoli boiled until it’s grey.”
Mr. Bhansal smiled. “Pretty much what my dad said. He much preferred the flavours from India. The book looks to be a great read on how they made television in those days, though. I’m lucky to have somewhere so peaceful and educational to spend my nights.”
A worried smile appeared on Mrs. Harris’ face. “It is that, but with the University Senate plans about reducing staff, don’t you feel concerned? Didn’t I see you with that woman from HR earlier?”
Mr. Bhansal paused, his eyes drooping for a second before he forced a smile back on his face. “Oh, she was just telling me about the tight times for the university and how our jobs are being ‘re-assessed’. I can’t follow most of this management speak that young people use these days but I’m sure I have nothing to worry about. A university needs its library and they’ll always need someone to keep it clean and tidy, even if they do want to change my job title to ‘Building Hygiene and Safety Manager’.”
“Well, I hope you’re right. They often rename jobs instead of giving out pay rises, but at least that would indicate there is a job for you. This place wouldn’t be the same without your cheerful presence.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Harris.” He paused and looked more carefully at her face. “Have you heard anything about your staff?”
A cloud passed across the librarian’s eyes. “Not good. They want to reduce the headcount again. It’ll be a shame to lose anyone, but it’s the fact they’ve been stringing me along for months saying I would soon be able to get a replacement for Special Collections that really gets my goat. I doubt anyone but you has been up there in a year now.”
A knowing smile twitched the janitor’s beard. “The odd one. I’m sure the university will see sense, you can’t have a university without books, and you really can’t have books without librarians.”
Mrs. Harris stepped outside and gave the janitor a worried smile. “I do hope you’re right. Well, good night.” She gave a wee wave and walked away down the street.
Mr. Bhansal closed the door behind the librarian and waved his hand over it, muttering a few words of Punjabi. He then dipped his mop in the bucket and began to wash the foyer floor. Halfway through, while he was scrubbing at a stubborn trainer print, the cat appeared and sat slap bang in front of him.
“What do you want? I have to finish this before I put the kettle on so you can’t get any milk yet.”
The cat blinked at him, licking its paw. It rubbed an ear with the damp paw and looked back at Mr Bhansal. “Well, if you don’t want to know that the alarm on the loading dock door has dinged then who am I to bother you?”
“The loading dock door? Damn, I forgot to lock that — got distracted talking to Mrs. Harris. These cutbacks, you know. They’re causing her distress. Is it students trying to sneak in? They’re not heading up to Special Collections, are they?”
“Well, I’m sure I don’t know.” The cat yawned. “Is it your tea time yet?”
Mr Bhansal sighed. “Alright, I’m sorry. You have brought me useful information and I thank you. Now, could you possibly pop up to Special Collections and keep an eye on things while I get the gear ready?”
The cat regarded its paw once more. “I am rather tired, you know. I might have a nap.”
“I bought new treat biscuits today.”
The cat’s ears perked up. “I resent the accusation that I may be open to bribery. I think I’ll take myself away from such slander, probably up to the Special Collections floor, where I’m sure it will be quieter and I can get peace for a nap.”
Mr. Bhansal smiled. “Thank you. I’ll be there shortly.”
The service lift shuddered to a halt at the top floor of the library as Mr. Bhansal peered through the concertina gate. Everything looked normal in the service corridor. Cardboard boxes of standard texts ran along the wall and a peeling poster for a years-old charity bake sale hung on a notice board. He pushed the gate aside and stepped out, scanning both ends of the corridor and listening hard. The sound of chanting, occasionally interrupted by raucous laughter, came from the end of the corridor. Mr. Bhansal shook his head and pulled on his cleaning trolley as he pushed through the first set of doors and down a short corridor to a second door, where the cat was sitting.
“Why do they always go straight for there? There is some excellent erotica two floors down I’m sure they’d enjoy a whole lot more. It’s all those American TV shows, with their tweedy librarians and monsters, that puts the idea in their head. If they just took a minute, they’d see the complete lack of tweed round here.”
The cat regarded him with its yellow eyes and yawned. “You took your time. Despite all the laughing, they’ve almost got through the rite. You don’t want that to happen again.”
“Depends on which one they’re trying? We did get you once.”
A very un-cat-like expression of embarrassment flitted across the cat’s face. “I’ve told you before, we don’t want to go into that. The less your puny human brain knows, the better for it. Anyway, to no-one’s surprise, they’re trying the same as always. What horny student would skip past a Lust Demon?”
Mr. Bhansal nodded. “It’s a sad indictment of the modern young man that when they have a whole panoply of demons, sprites, and goblins to choose from, and almost unlimited power to call on, they all fall for the first and most obvious trap.” He leaned over his mop bucket and muttered a few words of Punjabi and then took the mop in two hands and twisted the handle, pulling a thin sword from inside. “Well, shall we?”
The cat yawned once more, stretched out to its full length for a second, and sauntered along the corridor and round the corner. Mr. Bhansal took a firm grip on his sword and his trolley and watched through the small window in the door. Four students, all of them in expensively distressed clothes that indicated rich parents and a sense of entitlement, had drawn a basic circle and pentagram on the floor in chalk. There were gaps at several points, meaning the circle would be as useful as a chocolate fireguard at protecting them from what they were summoning. Mr. Bhansal had often remarked that it was a strange and very annoying quirk of magic that a circle of protection had to be smooth and unbroken, but the summoning pentagram could be scrappy and unconnected. The only reply the cat ever gave to this was to snort and refer to ‘puny human brains’, which Mr. Bhansal never felt was a fair answer.
The boys stood round the circle, passing a bottle of whisky between them, while the tallest of them read from a leather-bound tome. Mr. Bhansal had asked the previous Special Collections librarian to get it re-covered with something less attractive to stupid students, but he’d resigned due to seeing one thing too many before he got around to it. The words the student read out were barely intelligible, an ancient language being mangled in the way only a private school accent can, but they were enough, along with the rough markings on the floor, to kickstart the power. This manifested as a pale, reddish light that suffused the room, brighter in the center of the circle but not appearing to come from there. The shelves of books that ran away from the central space where they had drawn the circle all glowed, some more than others. The religious texts, slaved over by monks for decades, glowed lightly while the section on magic alternated between the genuine books, glowing brightly, and the fakes that barely registered. At the far end of the stacks were the tax records, so stultifyingly boring that they appeared to suck in the light like parchment black holes. Mr. Bhansal tightened his grip on the sword and muttered to himself. “Hurry up, you mangy cat, they’ve nearly finished. It’s not like you’re even an actual cat, you just look like one. You surely don’t have to act so typically catlike.”
Little flicks of light began to dance across the bookshelves in the room and the air developed an oily tang. Mr. Bhansal repeated his incantation over the mop bucket, staring into the water and willing his meagre power into it, and so almost missed the cat’s arrival. He looked up just in time to see its tail curl round the door on the far side and disappear behind a shelf. Then it yowled.
Mr. Bhansal and the cat had been pulling this stunt for six years. He had to admit it was a lot easier now he had help, but the noise the cat created always scared him half to death. It was a screeching howl of dread evil that was worse than any noise produced by something a student summoned. It squealed fit to hurt his ears, while at the same time making his bowels vibrate, and it seemed to come from every direction at once. The first time Mr. Bhansal heard it, he immediately decided never to ask the cat where it had come from.
Immediately the students shut up. They looked at each other, eyes wide and mouths open, and started to edge towards the door, each looking at the others for that tiny sign that they were about to bolt. It was then that Mr. Bhansal pushed open the door and stepped into the library, holding his sword aloft and shouting, “Get out!” in Punjabi. Never yet had any students kept their cool as the hideous yowl echoed around the wild, staring man with the sword, and these students were no exception. They turned and ran.
Mr. Bhansal stood for a second, watching them crash through the far door and down the stairs, before lowering his sword and shouting. “That’s enough now, they’re gone.” Immediately the howl ceased and the cat emerged from behind the bookshelf, a huge smug grin on its face.
“I’ve seen mice braver than that. Is it milk time yet?”
“Just got to tidy this up first and earth the energy. They got very close to completing, this time, and… Oh.” Mr. Bhansal took a step back towards the door he had come in by as the red light in the centre of the circle pulsed and a blob of reddy-purple goo appeared out of nowhere and hit the floor. “If that stains, I’m going to be very angry.”
A second blob of goo appeared, dropping on to the first, and then a third. As each appeared the red glow increased, getting brighter but also deepening in its shade, moving closer to the colour of blood. Mr Bhansal stepped back towards his trolley as the cat arched its back and hissed at the growing pile of goo. It had the consistency of thick jelly and was beginning to hold a shape, the rough impression of cloven feet and ankles becoming visible.
Mr. Bhansal picked up his mop bucket and readied himself. “I’d back away if I were you. This’ll be messy.”
The cat retreated, all the hair on its back standing straight up, as Mr. Bhansal took aim and threw the contents of his bucket over the growing, slimy object. As the water splashed across it, the old man turned away, screwing up his eyes and waited for the expected wet explosion.
Which didn’t come.
Mr. Bhansal turned back around, the colour draining from his face as he saw the figure was unharmed. The water he had thrown steamed from it as it solidified. The goat legs lead to a large barrel chest with tentacles writhing out of it at multiple points. On top of this, a small head, beady eyes, and a long beak which cracked into four parts and opened wide to reveal a wriggling tongue and thousands of gleaming pointed teeth. A burbling laugh drifted out as if from a great distance, followed by a voice that in no way could have been made by that mouth.
“Imagine thinking I would fall for that trick twice, you foolish mortal. I can draw upon dimensions of untold power. Your ‘holy water’ was never going to stop me once I knew of your minor human deity and had it destroyed.” The demon stretched out its tentacles, now pulsing with red light, and probed at the circle on the floor. The circle did not stop it as the tentacles crossed the line and then rubbed at it. Another bubbling laugh came from the creature. “Not even a glimmer of power in this ward. Are you even trying to protect yourself?”
“Those students wouldn’t know a ward if they woke up in one but, as for me, I still have some options.” Mr. Bhansal swung his mop handle sword, flicking the end with all his might. The blade sliced through the nearest tentacle. The end spun off, hitting a book on early Mayan canals, and then the floor, with a wet splash. He then spun the blade back, slashing across a second tentacle, which jetted dark red fluid up on to the ceiling. The creature’s tentacles withdrew inside the circle and Mr. Bhansal took a step forward. As he completed the step, the tentacles shot out again and grabbed him, knocking the sword from his hand and pulling him forward.
“You really are a fool. Did you think a simple blade would do me any real damage?” The tentacles wriggled around Mr. Bhansal’s body, alternately squeezing and sliding as they secured their grip. Each squeeze was accompanied by heat that forced sweat from his brow, followed immediately by a dire cold that tried to suck the breath from his lungs. As they pulled him forward towards the maw of the creature, he could smell its breath, which reminded him of the damp smell of a long abandoned cellar. His feet slid across the linoleum floor as he reached over the pulsating tentacles and felt around his back.
“Not that one, no, it’s just a sword cane with ideas, but this…” Mr Bhansal pulled his Kirpan from its sheath under his jumper and drove it into the neck of the creature.
The creature flapped its jaws, emitted a strangled cough, and lost its cohesion. Suddenly Mr. Bhansal found himself in a rapidly expanding pool of pink slime as the red glow faded from the room. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and gave his Sikh blade a clean before returning it to its sheath and turning ‘round.
“That was closer than I’m happy with. Not sure that this was the expected use when Guru Gobind Singh commanded we should always carry one, but I’m very glad he did. It’s good to have a religious item on me in case I need to suddenly combat a demon. I doubt I’d have done much damage with a pocket Bible, and a statue of Ganesha is far too heavy to carry.”
The cat stared back at him. “I can’t see what your problem is. You dealt with it fine and you only have a small amount of cleaning up to do. Not as if I had to stop being a cat, now is it?” The cat looked around at the mess. It looked like pink blancmange was coating the floor, Mr. Bhansal, and the ceiling. “But first you need to pour me out some milk for my reward.”
The cat turned and navigated its way gingerly around the mess on the floor and over to the door. “Well, come on. I don’t have all night.”
Mr. Bhansal looked at himself and the mess. “You know what, I think I do deserve a cup of tea. Job cutbacks or not, after this sort of work I’m not going to miss my tea breaks. This’ll keep.” He picked up his mop bucket and followed the cat. “Wonder if there are any Ginger Nuts left?”
The cat and Mr. Bhansal stepped out of the lift, small blobs of pink goo now littering its floor, and into the basement. The level was open-plan with shelves of toilet rolls and blue paper towels stretching off into the dark past a small, battered sofa.
The cat breathed out loudly. “Oh, that is so much better. The stuff you’re covered in is beginning to stink. This dimension does have some truly awful smells.”
Mr. Bhansal picked up the kettle from a side table and filled it, setting it to boil before filling the sink with water. As he splashed himself, the cat pawed at a printed memo with the University logo on it. The cat turned back to look at Mr. Bhansal. “If you want, I could do something about these people who are threatening your job here. I can’t have you being removed. I might have to deal with stupid students summoning demons on my own, and who would feed me milk or treats?”
Mr. Bhansal sighed and rubbed at his beard, dislodging a small blob of goo into the sink. “It’s a tempting offer, but I wouldn’t want to see any harm come to them. Making them aware of the dangers in this library wouldn’t go well either. They’re definitely the types to ignore a problem by closing the door on it, and then who would stop idiots using it?”
The cat shook his head. “Puny, stupid humans. You’ll never survive long amongst the thirty-nine dimensions with an attitude like that. Anyway, get a move on. I want my milk.”
Mr. Bhansal looked at the goo floating in the sink and then around at the shelves. “I’d be gutted if they made me leave here.” He sighed and then forced a smile on his face. “Come on, this isn’t helping anything. Positive thoughts, as my mum used to say. Those biscuits won’t eat themselves.”
Mr. Bhansal flopped down on to the sofa and opened a pack of cat treats, which he scattered on the seat next to him. He poured the boiling water over a tea bag in a mug and then pulled out a book from the shelf just behind his head. “Don’t let me forget to clean upstairs. But first, a quick chapter and some tea.”
The cat ignored him, face pressed to the sofa cushion as he hoovered up the treats. Mr. Bhansal smiled to himself and opened his book. The job may be mostly about cleaning up after thoughtless fools, but the perks were not bad.