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Clown in the Moonlight

Clown in the Moonlight


Tom Piccirilli Clown in the Moonlight

PART I

AND THE TREES BOWED DOWN

1

    The fever takes hold, my heart begins to hammer, and I can taste the sweet dollop of murder in the night. I shake my head and try not to laugh. No matter where you go, what you do, you can't outmaneuver your fate. Linda has a tight hold on my wrist as she leads me through the park into Aztakea Woods. She's a powerful little cheerleader, barely five foot tall but all tendon and tit and muscle, and when we make love on the floor of the gazebo or the back of my Mustang, she nearly bucks me off. I've got bruises and welts all over. So does she, but she likes them.
    She's excited now in a way I haven't seen before, guiding me down a barely recognizable dirt trail. She knows where she's going, even in the dark. She's been here before.
    The wind's risen and I can hear the heavy lapping of the Long Island sound, the salty scent heavy in the air.
    "The Acid King showed me," she says, and there's an odd lilt of laughter in her voice.
    I'm new to town and still don't recognize all the players. I've known Linda two weeks and they've been fun and freaky days. She tries to draw out the worst in me. It's not difficult. If someone cuts us off on 25a she attempts to goad me into racing or fighting with strangers. She whispers what she'll do to me if I win.
    We move into a clearing and the moonlight ignites her perfect teeth. Her pale skin glows as she smiles at me and presents the scene on the ground. She can't help snickering. It's an ugly but sexy sound. She moves against the breeze and her long hair rises against my lips, tickling. I taste fruity shampoo and stale sweat. I glance down and I'm staring at a mutilated corpse without any eyes.
    She places her hand on my chest as if she expects my heart to stop. She waits for me to suck in enough air to scream. Her nails dig deep. I like the pain she offers. It's minor and only scratches the surface. Her beautiful face shifts into an expression of delighted anticipation. She expects cursing, crying, or perhaps terrorized whining. Or maybe depraved laughter. It's obvious she's brought other boys here before. Weaker boys, ones she can control, ones she abuses and scoffs at callously. I take a shallow breath and let it out slow.
    Apparently she enjoys my non-reaction. She throws herself into my arms and kisses me passionately. Our tongues tangle. Her moans are so loud, full of a kind of torment, that I can imagine them coming from the dead guy. She says my name and couches it in lust and demand. I know which way this is going. Maybe I want it to go there, maybe not, but I won't resist. A growl works down my throat, a snarl works up it. I try to break her hold but I don't try very hard. Her tongue's burying itself in my throat, her breasts heaving. She draws away and gives a rasping cackle. That laugh drives into my head like metal shavings.
    The corpse is my age and size. He's got good muscle mass. I'm not paranoid and I don't think Linda's a murderer, she digs the dramatic reveal too much, but I keep my eyes open through our kiss. So does she. Our tongues grapple. I reach for her hands to make sure they're empty.
    He's been dead for a couple of days at least. Maggots ravage the flesh in the June heat, the body poorly hidden beneath a thin layer of leaves and dirt.
    "Don't tell anyone," she says.
    She knows I can't tell anyone about this. I've got what the courts call "anger management issues, " "impulse control difficulties," and "violent tendencies." They've forced my old man to move us three times around Long Island in the past few years. I've been in jail and I've been in Bellvue under suicide watch. All told I preferred my year-long stint in prison to the six-month stay in the psych ward. My father was more embarrassed visiting me in the hospital. He's been in jail himself, which he considers a natural part of the rites of manhood. He's never been in group therapy, which he thinks is for mama's boys and queers.
    The face is unrecognizable, utterly disfigured, more like shredded meat than anything else. Whoever did this took his time. I spot teeth marks and a lot of stab wounds, perhaps as many as fifty. The remains of a small blackened campfire sit in a ring of flat stones at the center of the clearing. I can still smell a hint of smoke. The area is covered in muddy footprints and matted leaves. It must've been raining the night it happened. Since then at least a dozen visitors have come through.
    The Acid King has brought a lot of folks by to see his handiwork.
    Linda reaches under my T-shirt and untucks it from my jeans. She groans and launches herself into my arms again, the scent of her hot cooze overwhelming the stink of the rotting corpse. Death sets her to trembling like razor-wire. There were a ton of guys on C-Block who'd been sent to the bin because of girls just like her. Some of them had regrets. Some of them didn't.
    Her upper thighs are wet with need. She tugs her blouse up over her head and throws it towards the body irreverently. She's not wearing a bra and she feeds me her nipples, which are coated in running silver as the clouds part and the moon washes over us. She hikes her skirt up. She's not wearing any underwear either. She knew this moment had to happen. I probably did too somehow. She helps me get my jeans off and we flop over into the brambles, briars scratching me up just as bad as her nails or a leather cat o' nine tails.
    The sound of night birds makes me look up through the trees but Linda draws me down. We make a vicious, venomous love that lasts no more than three minutes. It feels like we've fucked forever. It feels like we've fucked beyond death. She laughs through it all or maybe there are watchers in the brush and the trees.
    I'm so out of breath I'm hyper-ventilating. She keeps turning her cheek to me as if she wants to be slapped or punched. She doesn't know what she's asking. Or maybe she does.
    My rage tries to rise within me and I strap it back down to the gurney. I cage it and quarantine it. In any case, I don't hurt her. I don't hit or bite or bleed her. She glares at me with the fiery moon in her eyes and a grunt of frustration escapes her lips. She slaps me across the face. She's upset I'm not more impressed with torture and murder.

2

    Back in my '66 Mustang Coupe, as we cruise from Cow Harbor Park down 25a, she lights two cigarettes for us, and tells me the story.
    They call Ricky Kelso the Acid King because he deals LSD to the kids around Northport. He's a homeless seventeen-year-old dropout loser with a fried brain. He dabbles in the occult, the leader of a loosely-organized band of burnouts calling themselves the Knights of the Black Circle. They supposedly pray to Satan and hold ceremonies in a scattering of old cemeteries lining the North Shore. Ricky's big on human sacrifices, he tells everyone. He was arrested a few months ago for digging up graves and stealing bones and body parts to use in ritual black witchcraft.
    He's spent time locked up in Amityville Psych Center for drug rehab and psych care. His parents tried to commit him, but the psychiatrists concluded Ricky wasn't psychotic or dangerous.
    When I was in Bellevue, all the patients and the orderlies used to look down their noses at the privileged "guests" of APC, what with their nervous conditions and their lightweight treatments like aromatherapy and massages. In Bellevue, we headcases were hardcore. When we weren't in group therapy or bashing the shit out of clay making bad ashtrays, we were being drowned in the hydro tanks and threatened with lobotomies. We were slicing ourselves from wrist to forearm with sharpened two-inch-long safety scissors used to cut construction paper. The orderlies carried leather strops and chain collars for anybody who got out of line. You didn't get a window, much less a stroll around a manicured estate.
    I feel my first twinge of real disgust for Ricky Kelso.
    The dead guy is Gary Lowers. At a party a few months back, while Ricky was passed out on a basement couch, Lowers snagged ten hits of PCP from Ricky's pocket. A few hours later, when Ricky shook out of his hangover, he ran around the house making savage threats. Someone squealed on Lowers. Ricky cornered him a few days later. Despite giving back half the stolen goods and promising to pay off the rest-a total of maybe fifty bucks-Lowers failed to come up with the cash. Ricky stomped him a couple of times but he couldn't shake the money loose.
    It put Gary Lowers in perspective. He was someone who wanted to bleed. He was a thief. He could've easily ripped off half a C-note from someone who wouldn't smack him around nearly as much as Ricky did, but Lowers just let it slide. He saw which way things were headed and didn't do anything to stop it.
    On the night of the murder, Ricky invited Lowers to Aztakea Woods with a couple of other friends, saying he was ready to forgive the incident. After taking several hits of mescaline, Ricky, Gary, and two other punks whose names Linda didn't know or didn't want to say, made camp along the trail.
    Linda's breath fogs the windshield as she speaks. She notices her reflection and takes the time to reapply lipstick, preen her hair. She plucks some grit from her earlobe. The farther we get from the body, the more she returns to her usual shallow, regal self.
    A storm's coming in off the water, the spring night almost chilly now. I crack my window and let the breeze brush across my throat. A few raindrops spatter across the interior of the car door and spritz my hot skin.
    I pull to a red light and hear the night birds still singing. I shut my eyes and let their song carry my pulse for a minute. The swaying stop light creaks on the wire. A car pulls up behind me and the driver flicks the high beams. I check the rearview and try to make out the driver. The silhouette is large, looming over the steering wheel, crouching forward in an awkward pose. The body language is hateful, but the tightly tapped "toot toot" of the horn is friendly.
    Linda says, "The light's changed."
    I ease my foot down on the gas pedal. The driver behind lets me get a hundred feet ahead before filing in behind me. 25a has a lot of tight turns. I make three, driving slowly, but the car behind never catches up.
    Things were vicious and ugly for Gary Lowers, right from the start, but he must've known they would be. Ricky started a fire using Gary's socks and the sleeves from his denim jacket as kindling for the wet firewood. I pictured it, Gary being forced to take off his shoes and hand his socks over, watching Ricky strike his lighter over and over trying to get them to burn. Standing barefoot in the dank, mossy undergrowth. The cold starlight cascading, his three friends growing more degenerate, abominable. The situation escalated when Ricky suggested they use some of Gary's hair in the blaze.
    Lowers should've made a run for it then, but he stuck. He had a death wish. I'd known punks like that before. I might've even been one when I was younger. I might even be one now. You wanted to see how long you could last. You wanted to see who drew the line and who crossed it first. You want to face down the pale rider, you want to impale yourself upon the tips of black wings.
    Ricky scuffled with Gary, bit him on the neck, then stabbed him in the belly, face, and chest. It started fast but then slowed down. It had to have gone on for hours.
    "What kind of knife was it?" I ask.
    Linda says, "I don't know. A switchblade, I think."
    It wasn't. A switchblade would've snapped the first time it struck bone. No way could that much damage be inflicted on Gary's corpse with a hinged weapon.
    I reach over and place my hand on her inner thigh. I take more tight curves. She's no longer wet. I let my fingers sweep and play. I touch her outer lips. She flinches. She grabs my wrist with both hands as if to stop me, but she isn't strong enough. She lays back in her seat, frowning at me. My thumb finds its way inside her. She grunts softly. She pouts. I wonder if she's about to cry. I've taken her black power over the situation and made it mine.
    "Finish the story," I say.
    She continues, panting now. She tells me how the others helped Ricky hold Gary down during the attack. By then Gary must've known he was dying, but he still went with it. All four of them tangled together like lovers in the mud and blood. His eyes being torn out, his guts spilling. While Gary lay dying Ricky commanded, "Say you love Satan."
    Blind, Gary replied, "I love my mother." Like all suicides, he had a lot of guts.
    Linda responds to my kneading, toying touch. She tries to grab my wrist again and stop me, but I snap loose and backhand her across her mouth almost gently. I work my fingers against her tongue and make her taste herself. She sucks on my thumb for a while. I replace my fingers inside her cunt and with only a few flicks of my thumbnail she cries out and cums.
    I think about the eye-gouging. Even in prison, even on the ward, nobody ever went that far. Lunatics and cons had some personal restraint. I wonder if Ricky used the point of his blade, a burning sharp stick, his thumbs, or his teeth. Killing someone was one thing, but taking their eyes, that's something else. And Gary, unseeing, gushing, but still hanging on, unwilling to give in.
    Linda, having achieved orgasm for the fourth time in the last half hour, stretches out in the front seat and places her feet in my lap. She works her toes against my crotch. I can see in the passing street lights that my palm print is visible, pink against the corner of her mouth. She whispers, "Ricky said that a crow brought him a message from Satan that morning, telling him to do it, to kill Gary." She says Ricky's name with reverence, adoration, perhaps even love. "And when it was done, the trees bent over and bowed to Ricky."
    She stares at me, lit by the dashboard, and tries to gauge my reaction, to see if I believe. I shift into third and blaze past a sheriff's car parked in front of a pizza joint. I slow down in the hopes that he'll tear ass after me, give me a little run, really let me put the hammer down, get Linda warbling, but he doesn't follow.
    She wants to go back and look at the dead kid's face again. I don't. She calls my name as if I'm very far away. Perhaps I am. The scene not only excites her sexually, she wants to be a part of the violence, the desecration of flesh, the revolt against God. I understand. She starts to masturbate in the passenger seat. She continues saying my name for a while before she switches over and calls out for Ricky. When she's done, she twists in her seat and unzips my fly, working me with her hand at first and then her tongue. I ride her face viciously. I ease down harder on the pedal. She looks up at me and giggles. She wants me to scream. She wants me dead. My cock is rock. My face is unmoved stone. I explode. The moonlight smashes down. I glance through the window at the occasional clusters of deep woods along the road. I see Gary Lowers without eyes, watching me. Linda cleans me off and zips me up. I slam it into fourth.

3

    Rain pours down and there's death on the road. Flares burn around an accident, cops halt us and wave us through slowly as rubber-neckers check out the damage, searching for pieces of shattered bodies. A harsh crimson glow makes everyone look like they've dragged themselves out of intensive care burn units. I can't shake the feeling that I'm being followed by crows. Rain washes in across the back of my neck.
    Linda's straightened herself out. She lights two more cigarettes, and goes to place one in my mouth. I block her arm and she pulls a face and says, "Oh, you're one of those. Can't kiss a girl after you cum in her mouth? Won't smoke a Marlboro if my lips have been on it first?"
    She hands me the pack and I clamp a filter between my teeth and push in the lighter. It pops thirty seconds later and I raise it to the cigarette and puff heavily behind the wheel. She sits there brooding, smoking. I'm no longer quite as deviant or dangerous because I don't want to eat myself.
    Paramedics are placing a sheet-covered gurney into the back of an ambulance. The contours are all wrong. There's no way to tell if it's a man or a woman or a kid. The faces lined up on the sides of the road are nearly featureless. We clear the area and I gun it, back wheels chirping on the rain-slick tar. The windshield wipers thunk in perfect rhythm with my heartbeat.
    She says, "There's a party at Gwen's tomorrow night. Ricky will be there."
    It's a dare. A taunt, a challenge. It's a summons. I ought to drop an anonymous tip and call in Gary's body, but I'm a little worried it'll somehow get back to me. I don't need cops bracing my ass again. I don't need more violations. I don't need more time in the stir or in the bin.
    Besides, I want to meet him.
    "There's going to be mescaline. Have you ever tried it?"
    I have. I didn't like it. I don't understand how anyone can. I've tried all the psychotropics. Most of us on the ward have. They leave their fingerprints behind on our brains.
    "I thought he was the king of acid?"
    "He'll have plenty of LSD too, if you prefer that."
    She knows I don't. She knows I don't partake. I haven't had so much as a beer in two years. I'm clean. I have to stay clean. Liquor and drugs only loosen the chains of my rage. I'm not going back to the stir. I'm not going back to the joint.
    She's at my ear, nibbling. "Don't be upset."
    I'm not. This has all happened many times before, like a well-rehearsed ballet. It's the thing I fear the most, if I fear anything at all. That I won't be able to fuck a chick in a park without her showing me a satanic sacrifice. That I can't walk up a dirt path without a member of some group like the Knights of the Black Circle turning up. That I can't stand at the fridge of a convenience store buying beer without a murderous girl with razor wire in her hair asking me to take a ride. It happens in smaller or larger form, everywhere I go. They find me or I find them, often in my dreams.
    Even in juvie there were mutts with infernal or angelic script tattooed across their chests and backs, phrases in ancient Arabic or Assyrian they'd found on the Internet. In Bellvue there were entire wings devoted to the whack jobs who claimed to have made love to the Devil, or been raped by him, or who'd had their children eaten by him, or who'd murdered their babies in the name of him. And there were twice as many who said the same things about Christ.
    Group therapy was something else with that bunch.
    I think of my old man when he was in prison. One again I wonder how he survived. He's a tough prick but not nearly as tough as he thinks he is, and overestimating yourself is what brings the animals to your flanks. They must've smelled the terror he tried to hide beneath his hard man exterior. I know I do.
    My father has no apprehension about telling me what he had to do to survive. He goes into great detail about shanking Aryans and Mexicans and blacks. He hates queers but explains without irony how he raped new fish. It's all true and all half-true. Most of what he did he did because he was a bitch. I imagine him face down on his bunk while a D-Block train formed behind him, his hate a living thing within him that ten or twenty other men try to dig out of his guts, inch by inch.
    My father's fists are like steel. My father telling the doctors and teachers and truancy officers how clumsy I am. My father explaining how I trip over skateboards. How I run into fences trying to catch left field drives. My father, lying his ass off, still afraid of the world. And worse, looking at me when I'm nine and fully understanding that by the time I'm nineteen, he will tremble when I enter the house.
    Linda talks about Gwen. They're best friends even though we've never hung out with her. I sense more than a little jealousy and rivalry. So that means Gwen's a looker. They've fought over boys, they've traded lovers, they've done their best to ruin each other's reputations. Linda sounds like she wants to share me with Gwen. I look at her and can't even remember how or when we met.
    From second to second, even as I stare at her, I can hardly recall her face.
    "Have you ever killed anyone?" she asks.

4

    At the party, they're all talking about Gary Lowers. Nobody liked him much. They're glad he's dead. Some of them think it's funny. Some of them are properly awed that he lasted as long as he did. Many of them have already seen the body. They describe his face, what's left of it. Somebody supposedly brought along gardening shears and took his pecker as a souvenir. A girl mocks him. "I wuv my mommy. I wuv her so much." The rest crack up.
    It seems like Ricky Kelso's led every other kid here up through Aztakea Woods. Or they've led each other, the way Linda led me. She's over in the corner drinking a slow screw against the wall with Gwen and Gwen's boyfriend, a cat named Prill.
    Wherever I go, there's Gwen. She's a looker all right. Cheerleader beauty, raven hair, pursing her lips, snarling, laughing, all the right curves, her dark eyes on me. She cuts me off whenever I try to cross the room. She stands close enough that her large tits crush against me. Kids dance around us. She acts like they keep pushing her into me. They're not. Once her lips brush mine. I taste cherry lipstick. She smiles and gives a throaty laugh. My groin stirs. She spots my half-erection. She laughs harder and eases away into the throng.
    I shake my head, knowing how some of tonight will play out and wondering about the rest. Prill follows Gwen at a distance and glowers at me, his blue eyes blazing. He's a fullback on the school team and tried to crush my hand when he shook it earlier. At first he was startled when he couldn't, and then he was impressed, and finally the fear set in. For any of us, for all of us, the smallest, strangest minor disruption can petrify us.
    But apparently not corpses of classmates. Someone puts a mixed tape in and everybody starts to dance. They're wild and passionate in their movements. They grind and rub against one another, every twist and bend sexual and full of need. It's a show in itself. I smell weed burning and I spot a few kids taking hits of acid, popping pills. Bottles of hard liquor are standing everywhere, the keg in the corner has a ring of punks around it doing keg-stands. I'm in the corner slugging a glass of orange juice, pretending it's a screwdriver, keeping a clear head, but even that's getting harder and harder to do. I keep an eye out for Ricky.
    I haven't seen my father in five days but I hear his voice hissing in my ear, like he's hovering right behind me. It makes me want to turn around, but I don't know what I'd do if I actually ever found him there. Kill him, or go insane.
    Linda is dancing with Prill in the living room to a warbly muted pop-punk song cranking from four speakers tilted forward. She's trying to make me jealous. She wants me to beat the hell out of Prill here in front of everyone. She's got nothing against him. In fact, I'm sure she wants him, wants to steal him from Gwen. She catches my eye and makes certain I see her cupping Prill's ass and pulling him tighter and tighter to her.
    Gwen keeps the boys on edge like rival dogs about to leap on a skittering animal. The night's got to end in more blood. It's on everybody's mind. They saw the effect of murder but missed out on the bleeding. It leaves them wanting. The lust is bright in their faces. They need to see the fresh red pumping. It's affecting their fantasies and dreams. It's all they're thinking about, all they want now.
    The small talk is puerile and insipid. I drink my juice and act the ex-con. My eyes are narrowed. I check hands for shivs. I don't chase away anyone who approaches me, but I don't respond, I don't participate. I'm an outsider, maybe like Lowers himself. They've got me dead in the woods already with a thousand ice pick holes pumping liver bile and brainpan fluid and little arcing founts of blood.
    There's a tap at the dark window behind me. I look. I see nothing, but I imagine it's a night bird that's followed me back from Aztakea. I picture the black trees bowing and scratching for my attention.
    Gwen finds me in the crowd. She's a little miffed that I'm not making a play for her. Having a football hero boyfriend isn't enough. Having fifty other guys foaming over her isn't enough. She needs us all.
    She points her tits at me in accusation and says, "So are you a shy guy, a wallflower? You seem like such a shy guy. Come dance with me." She tugs the glass of juice from my hand and draws me forward into the center of the living room. I resist, but my resistance draws even more attention, kids looking our way, Prill practically snarling. Gwen's hair hangs in her eyes, and she stares at me with heat and hate and want. She lures me across the floor, where we grind into each other and bang around with the rest of them.
    I wonder who the other members of the Knights of the Black Circle might be. I wonder if they're brushing against me now, marking me with death symbols, scrawling names of power casually against my back. I imagine the Angel of Death arching high against the silver clouds, swooping down, alighting on a nearby roof, waiting for me to leave.
    I'm a good dancer too, in an old-school sort of way. My mother taught me when I was a child. She'd turn the record player up and really cut loose. Music somehow soothed my childhood fevers. We'd clasp hands and she'd swing me around on the freshly waxed kitchen floor, the soles of my feet charged in cotton socks, as I slid and learned how to shake my hips. She'd gyrate and groove. When my father got home from work, he'd find the two of us laughing and sweating. He'd stomp inside hard enough to make the 78s skip and ask, "What have you two been doing? Fucking?"
    It's an exercise in self-control that Linda manages to hold back for nearly five minutes before she beelines for me and Gwen, dragging Prill along with her. He can barely sway his slow, bulky body. They dance beside us and she's in his arms, riding against him hard while he does a box step, barely lifting his feet. She glares at Gwen and they show each other their perfect teeth. This has nothing to do with me or Prill or anyone else, except maybe Ricky.
    Linda looks like she's having fun but I see the real her rising to the surface, covetous, craving. Her nails are like catclaw barbs. She raises one hand to scratch at Gwen's face but I catch her wrist and draw her off. I give Prill a little shove towards his girl. Linda heaves a deep breath, about to let loose with a scream or a slur, but I smooth my lips over hers and swallow her rage. In a few seconds she twists and twines in my arms and rubs her groin on mine. She's not wearing panties tonight either. It's not because of me. Or Lowers's corpse. I know she's got her heart set on fucking Ricky Kelso tonight.
    The kids who are tripping wander around staring at their hands or the lights, laughing wildly, talking gibberish or crying because they see ghosts. Nobody else notices them much. Someone switches the tape and a heavy beat bangs on the walls and the mood of the house shifts. The party gets a little angrier.
    The liquor dwindles. Mescaline, mushrooms, and acid pass from hand to hand. Ten pizzas show up and the delivery guy at the door gets stiffed. The garbage pies slide into the crowd and everybody starts eating. He drifts around bitching, trying to collect money. Someone yanks his hat off and flings it across the room. He makes an effort to collect the boxes and pull slices from greasy hands. Cheese and sauce hit the carpet. He's considered a drag. A couple of mutts punch him, lightly. A couple of girls kiss him, sloppily. The pizza boy begins to dance, clumsily. Punks doing keg-stands topple into the wall. Framed prints of Van Gogh's Starry Night and Self-Portrait In Straw Hat shatter.
    They laugh. The talk grows louder. Lowers's name goes around the room again, passed from one to the next like a virus. Everybody's getting sick.
    One girl nearly drops into my arms, tripping, trembling as if suffering from chills brought on by pneumonia. I hold her for a second before she shakes out of my hands. Gwen brings her a shot of tequila and they giggle and French kiss.
    At my shoulder Linda says, "Do you want her?"
    "Which one?"
    "Gwen, of course."
    There's no right answer. She doesn't care anyway. Maybe she's just pawning me off. I don't really mind. I was expecting it even before our poisonous clench in front of Lowers's body. We can't hold onto each other because we can't hold on to ourselves.
    The breeze is stiff and the house groans. Windows rattle. It's raining again. I need some air and slip through the throng to the back door and out into the wet yard.
    It's everything my father would kill for. For a bitter, ex-con, Neanderthal prick he's got a highly romanticized notion of what a happy home life should be.
    This is his dream. A four-bedroom house in an upper middle-class neighborhood on a full acre with a perfectly trimmed lawn and some mature landscaping. He talks in his sleep. He covets with a fury. He hates the well-to-do, college-educated man. He hides in dark alleys. He keys cars. He lurks behind garbage cans. He waits in the bushes. He watches the rich through their well-lit bay windows and jacks it to adolescent girls climbing out of the shower. He destroys tiny tokens of a better life. He takes a bat to fancy mailboxes. He stamps on those little micro-lamps that border stone walkways. He cuts Christmas lights. He scatters lime around rose gardens. He pisses in ponds and kills koi.
    My old man, I listen to him confess in his stupors and I deny him the absolution he doesn't want anyway. He hated being married but wanted a wife. He hates me but wanted a son. He jabbers on drunkenly night after night. I imagine how his cellmate must've stuffed sock or cock in his mouth to shut him up.
    I lean back against the stoop railing and smoke a cigarette. The hot night is full of the smell of sex and sea and sap. The sky is the color of a blacksmith's hearth. Wind plies the trees and they sway and stoop. Black birds are thick in the branches, leering intently. Pellets of rain scratch at my face. Torrents overburden the gutters. The storm is back. I imagine Gary Lowers, faceless, turning over and drawing up his blanket of dead leaves, and shuddering in loneliness beneath them.

5

    I finish my cigarette and peer in through the screen door. Ricky Kelso walks into the living room and a hail goes up. I know him the second I see him, even before they call out his name. He basks in his minor glory, his dirty wild hair hanging in his dirty wild eyes. He's tripping so hard on something he can barely stay on his feet. Or maybe he's just high on his celebrity turn at murder.
    I step inside. I notice he's carrying Anton LaVey's TheSatanic Bible in his back pocket. He leaves the paperback hanging about halfway out so everybody can spot the title. Kids point. Kids giggle. Van Gogh stares in his straw hat, his hacked ear covered. Baphomet, the Goat of Hell, glares back at everyone who looks. Several kids turn away even as several other punks step closer.
    From Ricky's jacket pocket hang a few bags of PCP. I can see why Lowers reached out and snatched the drugs. It's bait. It's what Ricky wants you to do.
    Gwen gives him a loving hug. So does Prill. So does the pizza guy. So does Linda. There's real emotion in her clench. She's never grabbed me like that. For a second I'm envious. My mother used to hold me like that while my fever spiked and I raved.
    My mom, she'd press her lips to my brow and say, "You won't always be sick."
    But I have been, and so's Ricky. His frenzied gaze roves the room. His expression shifts depending on who he sees. Lust, hate, greed, jealousy, resentment, even some true loving sentiment. He has true friends here among his former classmates. There's trust, laughter, long histories, shared fate.
    When his eyes fall to me his face goes slack. For an instant he looks like a child, innocent and full of wonder. He tilts his head in surprise. He frowns in puzzlement. I'm probably doing the same thing.
    He begins to move to me before he remembers who he is.
    Who he is, what he's done, what his plans are, and exactly how he's going to wind up. I start towards him. The throng gets in the way. That's their only purpose, to hold the two of us apart.
    In Ricky's honor, the music shifts. They put on heavy metal. The lyrics are as inane as their conversation. Hair band front men in eyeliner and headbands scream about Lucifer, Abomination, Leviathan, Pandemonium, the arch-dukes of the inferno. Guys around me mimic their heroes, make the sign of the horns, hold up their lighters, and sing along. More weed comes out. More acid, hash, mescaline. Somebody's made a liquor run. My mouth waters for whiskey. The house fills with the sweet stink of burning mary jane, and my head lightens a touch.
    Linda is very stoned. We make out in the corner for a few minutes. Then she takes me by the wrist and leads me down the hall to Gwen's bedroom. Gwen is already there, taking sips from a bottle of tequila, smoking a joint, naked in bed.

6

    It's what I expect. They fight over me in a silly, endless, half-hearted, territorial war of attrition. They treat me like a pack mule that isn't moving up the canyon trail quickly enough. They beat my back. They dig their nails in, bite, wrench me one way and then the other. They straddle and pound and chomp. I'm bleeding from a dozen tiny wounds. This has nothing to do with me. After a while they begin to go at each other. It starts off mean and eventually becomes tempestuous. It would be a turn-on if it wasn't so predictable. They love themselves, and they're so much alike that they love each other, in a self-hatred kind of way. They're ravenous. I watch for a while. I participate when they let me. They command each other to do filthier and filthier acts. They demand I abuse them. I comply. I pulse. I grow charred. I can't degrade them deeply enough for their satisfaction. Prill is at the door, listening. He kicks at the knob twice but the lock holds. What did he expect? How could he not know? The girls devour me. I clamp my eyes shut and watch the shadows move on the other side of my burning red eyelids. I see Gary Lowers's eyeless face turning in the rain to look at me. He implores me to do something. I don't know what. There's no hope for justice or redemption anymore, he'll never rest, and neither will I. Maybe he just wants a grave, even a shallow one. I could go back and bury him, but what's the point? The dirt has rejected him. The kids will make fun of him just the same. I wuv my mommy. I love my mother too. I miss her more and more every day. My father calls her name out in the night. He slams his fists into the walls like he's beating her again, but she's finally beyond his reach. It's slowly killing him, not having her anymore. He sometimes stands in my bedroom doorway at dawn, but I'm always awake and ready. He wants me dead or he wants me to kill him. Maybe both. I know I'm capable. Gwen and Linda roll across the mattress. They're on the floor, they're on the desk. They're spread against the window. They muffle their cries with each other's flesh. Their nails groove the sill. Branches flail in the breeze, wanting to scratch the girls, wishing them to bleed more deeply. Gwen tumbles across the night stand and Linda pounces. I join her. The bitter taste of blood, tequila, pussy, and shit fills my head. At one point I tear strips from the sheets and use them to bind the girls. First one, while we work on her. Then the other. Until I stand above them, alone, rigid, in the darkness, all the light bulbs shattered. We see each others' eyes by moonlight. Their knotted gags are too tough to chew through. It's not so different from what happened to Lowers, in its own way. Sex transcends itself, a fusion of violence and sacrifice. I stand, waiting, my pulse in tune with theirs, with Ricky's. The walls throb with bass guitars and percussion. Snatches of lyrics catch my attention. I lean over the bed. Linda asked if I'd ever killed anyone. I hiss at her, "Yes." I do things to them with whatever I can find in the desk drawer, in the closet, under the bed, with my body. It's loud and merciless. By the time I cut them loose they're both sobbing, clinging to each other and quivering, sated, terrified and cowed, and I know I have to leave. The storm wants inside. Its force can't match my own. Rain on the window scrawls out my past and hints about the future. The glass trembles as if pecked by the beaks of crows. I imagine my father out there peeking in, wanting in. The girls lick the running blood from each other. They dress me before they dress themselves. They thank me.

7

    Ricky's passed out on the couch, his bags of PCP about to fall out of his pocket, the Satanic Bible already having worked down between the cushions. I sit beside him and try to picture his dreams.
    Lowers isn't in any of them. Lowers is already old news. Ricky's got other things on his mind, trying to keep on the move. From what I pick up from the chattering throng, the cops roust him night after night and force him to move along, park somewhere else. He drives around Cow Harbor Park looking for more friends, more victims. Just to shake the boredom he digs up ancient graves and plays among the bones. Everyone is always searching for a new, or very old, source of power. It's why he deals to children and idiots. It's why he beats up on masochists. It's why he starts fires with your hair.
    I dip my hand into his pocket and steal the bags of PCP. It's what Ricky wants. He thinks he's caught a new fish. His eyes flash open and he focuses on me, but he doesn't move otherwise. I make sure he sees me putting the bags in my own front pocket. I wait for him to jump up. I wait for him to try to beat the shit out of me. He can't possibly do it, this rail-thin freak, but I wait. I grin at him. Our eyes lock. We wait. His vicious scrutiny tells me all I need to know about how this is going to play out.
    He turns over slowly and his scheming expression shifts into pure psychosis, and then into something unreadable beyond insanity. I don't know what it means, but you're always proud to push the guy beside you to the next stage of his evolution.
    He notices my wounds. The rug burns, scrapes, gouges, teeth marks. He whispers something I don't catch. I frown at him. He whispers it again. He says I smell like Gwen's asshole. He's not lying.
    I page through his copy of The Satanic Bible. It's been a while since I've read it. It was hokey back when. Now it's even more ludicrous. But it has representations of ancient drawings and the word Satanism has taken on new meaning lately. PTAs all over the country are banning books and music for brainwashing kids. School dress codes are tightening, no more wallets hooked to your belt with chains, no more metal stud, no more pentagrams, devil's horns, or heavy metal lyrics on the back of your jean jackets.
    There are kids out there suddenly recalling years of repressed memories. They're claiming satanic cults forced them into slavery and sex rituals involving butchered newborns. If you believe the ten o'clock news, then just about every other church is being desecrated and being used for black masses. Anton LaVey alleges tearing a photo of Jayne Mansfield in half and causing her death by decapitation. Anton LaVey is a fraud who's done a lot of damage. Baphomet keeps a fixed gaze on us.
    Ricky's jean jacket is stained with dried spatters of mud and blood. It's frayed at the collar and singed at the cuffs especially. Wherever he's got his blade stashed, it's well hidden. He's got on a black T-shirt and blue jeans and sneakers, just like me. He hasn't taken a shower in at least a week and he stinks like a sewer. He smells like Gwen's asshole too.
    I offer the book back to Ricky and he tells me, "Keep it."
    I say, "No thanks."
    "I insist."
    "You can't."
    "What?"
    "You can't insist upon someone who won't allow it. You can only insist upon someone who acquiesces. Like Gary."
    The name just makes Ricky's face twist more crazily. I wonder what the Acid King sees when he sees me. He grins a baboon grin. He refuses the book.
    I stuff it back down between the cushions. I wait for him to try to put his hand on me. He doesn't. I know he wants to go for the blade. He just keeps staring, features contorting in a variety of ways. Sometimes I recognize the expression, sometimes I don't. His features contort so much that I wonder if the juice I drank was spiked with LSD. He almost seems to be melting.
    He's puzzled by me, and he's got me curious. If he wasn't a crazed murderer, we might be on our way to a solid friendship here. He cocks his head one way and then the other. His eyes half-close. He bobs his chin in time with the music. The lead guitar is performing a painfully simplistic solo that's got the punks worked into a frenzy. They're playing air guitar. Ricky's fingers move like he's striking chords. Then he sinks back, relaxed. For a minute he sleeps. He snores heavily. The music is loud enough to bring the cops down on us, but they don't come. The neighbors don't call. They're afraid of kids.
    Somebody puts in a new cassette. More weak metal. The lyrics are just as bad as before. The Devil is leading children through the forest. The Devil will return your love tenfold. God is dead. Paradise is a lie. The world is hell and that's so beautiful. The theater of the inquisition is open to all. Prepare for pain.
    The girls try to dance but it's not the kind of rhythm you can really move to. They gyrate and sway in a sexless manner. The punks bang their heads. Long hair whips back and forth like the cat o' nine tails that tore Christ's back apart. Ricky puts his feet in my lap the same way that Linda did in the car. Maybe it's a sign of affection. Maybe he's trying to push buttons. He fails on either count. I wait him out. We're like that for a while. He breaks before me. He hops off the couch.
    Maybe this is it. I watch for the blade. It doesn't appear. Ricky likes an audience, but only if he gets to lead them to the stage one by one. He laughs his mad monkeyboy laugh, his hair coiling into his eyes like serpents.
    His face goes bleak. "What's your name?" he asks.
    I don't tell him. Names have power.
    His crew tightens around him. Now I see who the other members of the Knights of the Black Circle are. They've been here the whole time, but somehow hidden among the gatherers. Not in the corners, I always check the corners. Hiding in plain sight, but somehow not there either. They're shadows without light, they're mutts like all the rest but nothing like the rest at all. Ricky leads them through the throng. They cluster at the far side of the living room and make their way down the corridor to a distant den. They follow him without a word. They seem incapable of speech, like they've been walking the deserts of the earth for ten millennia in silence, with swords drawn. Their lips are set, mouths nothing more than bloodless lines, eyes as empty as Lowers's sockets. They slam the door.
    I stand and put my back to the wall and shut my eyes. I press my concentration beyond the noise, the babble, the pizza guy still retching, the rain slashing at glass. I hear Gwen and Linda in the bathroom, washing and bandaging each other. They whimper because the peroxide burns. They whimper because some of the marks are bound to scar. Gwen might need stitches. Linda's knees are still weak. They worry about pregnancy. They worry about what they may mother with me as the father.
    I focus hard enough that I can hear Ricky talking to his knights on the other side of the house despite the din.
    Ricky's done a little homework. He knows the names of the infernal orders, the black popes, the archdukes that sit in great central dome of Pandemonium. He discusses offerings. Ricky mentions Gwen's name. She's on his kill list. The others concur with the choice. Their voices are guttural and grating. The language they speak hardly sounds like English. More names are tossed into the mix. They're either agreed upon or dismissed.
    My focus is so sharp that Ricky notices.
    He says, "Someone's listening."
    The door opens. They check the hallway. Ricky's got to know it's me, but what fun is it not to play a little hide and seek. I fade into the crowd. The Knights of the Black Circle exit and drift among the partygoers. I pretend to dance with a burnout chick with big tits who's barely shuffling in place. I draw her to me and put my lips to her throat. I nibble. I suck. I bite. She grunts and jerks in my arms.
    She says, "I like you. I think you should take me home."
    "Sure."
    "But no fucking. I'm on the rag."
    "Okay."
    "But I'll jack you off if you want. I like you. I'll do that for you."
    "You're sweet."
    I walk her out to the Mustang and the moment she crawls into the passenger seat she passes out. It's just as well. I'm not up for anything else, not even a hand job. I'm raw and clawed. I check her wallet and read her driver's license. I realize her name is on Ricky's kill list. I lift her eyelids and stare at her blank eyes, thinking about them in Ricky's fist, being squeezed, being thrown away.
    I drive her home through the storm and leave her sleeping on some Adirondack furniture under a roofed patio. I sit with her smoking a cigarette. I take a drink from the hose. I stuff the stolen bags of PCP into her pockets, thinking, what the hell. Maybe she and her friends can have some fun with it.
    I decide not to go home. I don't want to see my father. I don't think I ever want to see my father again.
    That night I stay in Cow Harbor Park, under the gazebo less than a half-mile from Lowers's corpse. I stare out at the waters of the Long Island sound and see that someone has already started to carve up the woodwork.
    In one of the benches, a full inch deep, are the words SAY YOU LOVE SATAN.

8

    My dreams are mostly vapid, sexual half-memories. They mean nothing beyond the obvious. Ricky visits in vivid detail. He tries to set fire to my socks. My mother arrives, her face holding answers, but before she can say anything, I jump awake as a cop taps on the bottom of my sneaker with his billy club.
    The crows wait in the trees for my undoing. I nod to the cop but it's not enough. He wants to put me through my paces, go the full route.
    "Let's see some ID."
    I hand him my driver's license. It's not enough. It's new, less than a month old. It's so fresh he actually holds it up to his nose. He gestures for me to give him my wallet. I turn it over. He goes through it, checking each fold and pocket. He pulls out a photo of my mother and holds it up close to his eyes, turns it over to see if there's any writing on the back. There isn't.
    "You carrying any drugs?"
    "No."
    "Why are you sleeping here in the park?"
    "I had a fight with my father."
    He leans in and sniffs my breath. I sigh in his face. He seems satisfied there's no liquor on my breath. Any residual stink of marijuana that might be on my clothes is covered over by the water and fresh rain fragrance on the brush.
    But he makes me walk the line, say the alphabet backwards, do all the other little monkey dances. I jump through the hoops the way I'm supposed to, even though, technically, my car is parked. I'm not driving drunk. There's no call for this, but he has his mind set.
    It's still not enough. He calls it in and learns my history. Then he really starts grilling me.
    I don't mind. I answer all his questions amiably and honestly. He's still got my wallet in one hand, my mother's photo in the other. I think about how bad things will go down if I tell him about Lowers. I don't bother. The whole world will know soon enough.
    The cop doesn't like mutts like me messing up America's beautiful parks. It's obvious he wants to tune my ass. He's got a lot of steam built up and wants to let it loose by working me over with his nightstick. We had bulls in the can like this. We had orderlies on the ward like this. My father is like this.
    The cop loosens his shoulders, cracks his neck. He sticks my mother's photo back in the wallet to free his right hand and throws the wallet at my feet. He's clear to draw his club or his gun. I'm resolved not to let that happen no matter what the cost. He senses I've taken a stand. The summer morning heat is bad. He's sweating and uncomfortable and he's got an edge to him. Probably a bad marriage, a gambling problem, a small coke habit. He's as twitchy as Ricky. He's got a lot on his plate.
    We stand there like that for a while, neither giving any ground, the moment lengthening and full of possibility. His hand hovers over his holster. Now we're getting somewhere. I like the direction. He's through with the idea of beating the hell out of me. I wonder how he expects shooting me in the head will change his life for the better. Maybe he thinks it's the first step to the lottery, a stronger marriage, earning his daughter's respect, an easy retirement on the south shore. I represent so much to him now that I'm flattered.
    He's not fast enough to draw and shoot before I launch myself and break his neck. He could always run for cover, but retreat will destroy all the amassed power of this instant. He can either do it now or he can't.
    His eyes are practically spinning. He grins and it's the grin of my old man. It's my grin. His face flashes with homicide one more time before the idea finally drains away from him as if it was never there at all.
    He tells me, "The park's closed at night. From now on sleep at home, whatever the problem might be."
    "Right."
    "Keep out of trouble."
    "I will."
    He starts to step away but has one last comment to make. "Your mother is a very handsome woman."
    It freezes me where I stand, like electro-shock, like a lithium shot, like leather straps holding me in place, a twisting knife in the spine. It's just the wrong thing to say. It's the very worst thing to say.
    The rage waits for times like these. It skitters out from behind whatever walls and fences I've built around it, and I realize, once again, that I always leave the largest doors unlocked. I think I'm chuckling.
    I'm lucky I can't move. If I so much as raise a hand to this man I'll have to murder him. He knows my name. He knows what my mother looks like. Like him, if I start something, it has to end in death.
    So I watch the cop as he recedes back to his patrol car. Once in his seat his gaze lingers over me for an extra second, and then he pulls out, turns around, and disappears. A gust of wind rises off the water and blows the black bouquet of a rotting New England south into my face. I can smell the Salem witch hunts, bodies hanging in the sun. Giles Corey refusing to enter a plea of guilt or innocence, doomed to torture and crushed to death beneath a board covered in rocks. His words carry on the breeze. I can hear him demanding of his judges, more weight. More weight. What a total badass. More weight, as the rocks piled up and his lungs exploded.
    I run my index finger along the grooves.
    SAY YOU LOVE SATAN.
    I climb back into the Mustang and follow the slow-trolling cop out of the park. I kill a couple of hours grabbing a long breakfast at a local diner. I drive home and find my father's vomit all over the place. He's had a bad night himself but he made it in to work. I'm impressed. There's no note for me. We'll never exchange words again.
    I pack my shit in two rucksacks, steal what cash is around, and take a cold shower. The icy water isn't enough to drive down my fever. I climb out sweating, my face red, my eyes spider-webbed with bloody veins. I dry myself. A couple of the bites and scratches are infected. I clean and bandage them as best as I can. You could make a set of dentures from the teeth indents on my thighs.
    I dress, take one last look around, and I'm off for good.
    I head to the cemetery to make sure that Ricky and his cronies haven't disturbed my mother's grave. It's entirely conceivable. I didn't tell him my name but I'm certain he knows it by now.
    I stand before my mother's tombstone and my ankles throb as if she's reached up and taken hold of them. She's taught me prayers that aren't quite prayers, and I recite them aloud, louder than I intend. The fever burns through me.
    Other mourners and visitors turn in my direction. Rose petals and strands of silk flowers float by on the breeze. I nearly ask my mother what I'm supposed to do now, but I'm afraid that she'll answer, with a tone of disappointment thick in her voice.
    It's impossible to shake the image of her skull on Ricky's homemade altar, radiating force and dominion. I can see him and his followers kneeling before a reliquary of ashen bones and stolen trinkets. They're out in a field that has a lightning-split coven tree at its center. They chant petitions and benedictions they've learned from stolen library books. They dance around in the nude, in the tidal spray, calling on the infernal order, crying out for more soldiers from the pit.
    I can see Ricky going down his list, name by name, inviting his victims out to the woods, the thickets, the sawgrass, the dunes. He maims and kills and leaves his prey unburied. He takes their eyes and throws them into the fire. He takes their eyes and uses them in his dreams. He makes me bear witness.

9

    On Linda's porch I stand fast while her father works my midsection. Like her, he's got a lot of muscle to him. He hooks me twice more to the ribs while screaming what a filthy animal I am. I swallow my laughter. He should only know what his daughter is capable of. He should only see her in action.
    Linda's eyes meet mine. She's having a hard time hiding her smile too. And her fear. The amusement plays there in her face. The terror rises and fades from one moment to the next. She loves me genuinely now. She loves me now because she knows Ricky is no longer the only boy who knows how to talk to demons.
    Her old man says he's calling the cops. He says he's going to kill me. Her mother lets out a wail from the other side of the screen door, like a trapped animal seconds away from gnawing off its own trapped paw.
    Despite his brawn he's not doing much damage. I resist striking him back. My father's done a lot worse to me. I know how to deflect and dodge and buckle just right. It keeps everyone happy. He's not hurting me and I have no need to kill him. Unlike the cop, whose rage can never be spent, Linda's father is already wearing himself out. I can take this in my sleep. I do take this in my sleep.
    I understand his fury. Linda's covered in bruises, welts, bandages, butterfly Band-Aids and gauze. Some of it's my fault. Most of it is Gwen's. All of it was at Linda's own request and passionate need. No matter how bad she looks, Gwen is bound to look much worse.
    He backhands me and I taste blood. The heady stink of it ruins what's left of my patience. What would daddy say if he knew his little girl got off fifteen times thanks to our minor agonies? I spit and my laughter comes out with the blood. He rushes in to try to pummel my belly again but I've had it. In one fluid motion I'm on him and he's down next to the barbeque grill, and I'm making sounds that I haven't made in a very long time.
    So's he. It takes thirty seconds of using my hands in strange ways to make him sob and whine and mewl. My laughter gets louder inside of my head. Outside of my head, I am whispering in a harsh voice, describing just one small act that Linda and I performed last night. He squawks like a chicken about to meet the axe.
    I kneel on his chest and enjoy his panic. My mouth waters. My mother's secret name is in my throat. My own secret name is bound in a box made of lead and leather and hidden under my heart.
    I thrust him from me. He hits the side of the house and wood shingles splinter. I stand and the clouds move together and move apart, thunder murmuring distantly, and the night birds are signing in the morning.
    Linda places her hands on either side of my face and draws me closer. She kisses me deeply and I follow her to the Mustang. We get in. We drive on to the next act of our Grand Guignol Theater that plays out beneath a very bad star, moving us along as it must.
    "I wanted you to snap his neck," she tells me. "I know you could've done it. Why didn't you do it?"
    All of our fathers want us dead, and we want all of them dead. Her mother's wail is the only bit of grace I've experienced in longer than I can remember.
    "Next time, kill him," she says. "And her. Especially her. She deserves it even more than him. She deserves it the most, my fucking God, living the way she does, if you can call it life. So vague, so transparent. They disgust me. I'll help you plan how to do it. He's got a shotgun collection. He keeps them locked in cases in the den but I know where he keeps the key."
    There's no need to point out that she sounds like a moron.
    We drive around town, in rough concentric circles, with Aztakea Woods as a kind of central point. I weave around the streets keeping an eye out for Ricky. There's going to be more blood on his hands soon, if there isn't already. Someone else is going to have to say he loves Satan. Someone else might love his mother.
    Linda feels it too. I glance at her and she's overjoyed. The Acid King's will is in the wind. She peels back her bandages and checks her wounds. They're infected too, of course. She has the start of a fever. Gwen's bites and burns and razor slashes have ushered her down the road of transcendence. She always knew there was another level to love and hate, one beyond normality, but now she's experienced it firsthand. It's left her gorged and wanting more.
    We ride up and down Jericho Turnpike and stop and have brunch at the Majestic Diner on Old Country Road. We eat in silence. The buzzing, banal conversations of the other patrons are painful to hear. Linda tilts her head like she's got an earache. My chin is cocked at the same angle.
    We skip out on the check. Back in the car she talks about murder like it's a new team cheer. Something to practice after classes until you get it just right. Something to do in front of a crowd to get them all applauding. She acts like it's an important part of school spirit. She wants to butcher old lovers, gut cheerleaders who don't pull their weight, cut the school custodian's throat. She says he lurks around in the girls' locker room hoping to catch a flash of naked teenage ass. She's got kill fantasies about the team mascot, the QB who got sacked three times at last year's homecoming, the assistant principal who put his sweaty hand on her knee. She wants to throw acid in the face of the science teacher who gave her detention in the ninth grade.
    Her rage calls to my rage. I try hard not to writhe in my seat, clutching the wheel tighter. I light a cigarette and lean my elbow out the window.
    "I want to fuck you in the middle of Times Square," she purrs. It's a pretty dramatic jump from all her kill fantasies. She tells me to get on the LIE and rip towards the mid-town tunnel.
    One of her old boyfriends used to bring over cheap porn films, the kind shot in somebody's basement. They'd hang a sheet on the wall in her bedroom and use it as a screen. Then he'd run the projector and they'd watch nasty flicks until her father got home from work and her mother got back from PTA meetings and shopping at Klein's. She wants to kill him too, and the thought of his death has got her horny to see whores in action. She wants to invite a streetwalker into the backseat with us, then park down an alley on Forty-Second Street. She wants us to get arrested. She imagines the look on her father's face when he hears the news. She imagines the look on his face when she slices off his dick with a box-cutter.
    "Gwen's going to die," she tells me, pinching her ruined nipples through her sweater. "She's next. I don't know when it's going to happen, but that's what Ricky's been saying. He hates her too. And don't say that he hates everyone. He doesn't. He's just-"
    She searches for the right word. She can't come up with it. She gestures meaninglessly, which has more meaning than anything else she's said today. Ricky's not just anything. He's not just in pain. He's not just losing his mind. He's not just being toyed with by powers and influences beyond his understanding. He's seated at the eye of the hurricane, and he's drawn me into the storm.
    I don't head towards the city. Linda doesn't care. She spouts off more things we should do. Some boring, some lethal. It's all the same to her.
    Instead, I run a search pattern all over town, waiting for the Knights of the Black Circle to turn up. I send my will into the wind. I picture Ricky's shadow men pulling away from strip malls and hole-in-the-wall bar parking lots, hitting the streets, following. I steel myself and wait for the Mustang to go skidding in fresh puddles of blood spread out across the road.
    By the time the moon rises, Linda is burning up and in need of serious antibiotics. She's hallucinating and keeps crawling down into the footwell, screaming that crows are stuffing their beaks into her ears and pecking at her brain. She's not lying.
    I sit her up, roll down both windows, and turn the fan up high trying to cool her down a little.
    She whimpers the names of witches' familiars. "Pommerance, Tico-Tico…Bathal, Bathei, Winter's Leg…"
    I take her to the emergency room but she won't get out of the car until we fuck. She climbs on top of me in the driver's seat, her sickly sweat pouring off her, hot as a furnace about to blow. To touch her is to burn. Good, I'm glad, I prefer it this way. Her infection is the only true thing about her. She whimpers for Gwen. She loves and hates Gwen as she loves and hates herself. She rides me hard, slamming her back against the steering wheel, sounding the horn. She grabs the sides of my face and holds my head in place. She tries to kiss me as we struggle against each other, she seems to think it's very important that she kisses me. I check her mouth for hidden razor blades. I know that I'm an offering to the next dark god.
    Linda giggles as she thrusts down on me, harder and harder, louder and louder, her nostrils flecked with yellow crust, blisters forming at the corners of her mouth. On her belly are growing red lines of blood poisoning. She smiles without humor, mercy, or sexuality.
    I know the next move. I see it clearly.
    She lets loose with a ghastly laugh she can't control, can't hold inside anymore. It goes on and on.
    "Three-Together-in-the-Blind-Eye, Hildegrance…come for me, Black Shuck!"
    As we reach our peak her thumbs begin to slide across my beard stubble and she goes for my eyes.
    This is what she needs as her orgasm tears through her. I grip her wrists in my fists and hold her tightly while she wails in ecstasy, hysteria, and madness.
    "I love you!" she moans. It almost sounds like I wuv you. "Let me!" she demands. "Let me! Please!"
    "No."
    "Say you love Satan!"
    "No."
    "Say you love Satan!"
    I clip her on the chin and she almost goes out, but not quite. Her head lolls and she starts sobbing, even while she murmurs and begs. Her fever is critical, waves of heat brushing against me like a brushfire. I finish ejaculating inside her and zip up. I carry her to the emergency room entrance. She presses her face into my chest and keeps crying while I shush her and kiss her forehead. An intern spots us and raises a clamor. They take her from me and place her on a gurney. Linda's eyes stay focused on mine as they wheel her up an overly lit white corridor.
    A nurse at the ER desk questions me and demands I fill out papers. I turn away and a passing security guard places a hand on my chest in the same spot where Linda's tears have soaked into my T-shirt. He tells me to stop. He tells me I'm not going anywhere. He's as bald as Anton LaVey.
    I can feel Ricky's frenetic presence looming. He's like a swarm of gnats, a murder of crows, rising up against the building and finding a million ways in towards me. I push against the guard's hand while he orders me, "Stop. Stop right there, buddy."
    He reaches for his walkie-talkie and spits out some code numbers. I push against him again and he shoves me back harder this time. The rage wants me to lash out. Ricky wants me to kill.
    It's almost unbelievable that the guard can't feel the forces of the cosmic game swirling around us, moving us, presenting us as opposing pieces. How dim can someone be?
    "Hold it, buddy, just stay there. We need you to answer some questions about your girlfriend. It'll only take a few minutes."
    The windows rattle. The storm has found me again.
    I check my rage and perform the way I did in prison, with a cold and crystalline vision and efficiency. I don't get angry. I don't want to hurt this man.
    But I do. I swing my forearm around and strike him in the jaw under the ear with my elbow. There's a large cluster of nerve ganglia there, and I know what it feels like to have it struck. The guard sees nothing but solar wheels as the inside of his skull ignites. He flails backward, unconscious.
    More guards appear at the far end of the hall. The ER nurse starts screaming. Other patients, despite their illnesses and wounds, back away to the wall as one. A twelve-year-old with a broken nose flinches from me. His mother moves in front of him in a display of maternal protection. She's breathing heavily, pale in the muted light, her breasts heaving. She waits for me to rape her. The glass keeps shaking.
    I stomp through the automatic doors. I climb into the Coupe, buckle up, rev the engine until it's shrieking, throw it into gear, and burn out.
    I light up. I check the rearview. The front of the hospital is full of brash action and motion and shadows.
    Linda wasn't even on Ricky's list but she might as well be counted a victim.
    His, her father's, Satan's, or mine.

10

    The moon goes into hiding. The dark squall circles and dives and breaks against the side of the Mustang. The night is blacker than the back of the Devil's eyelids. I can feel Ricky and his circle out there performing their death celebrations. I send myself to him. I let him lead me there. I drive blind for a while, eyes shut, letting my other senses guide me.
    I turn left, I turn right, I hit it on the straightaway. I spin out in gravel and branches of swaying trees scrape the hood. I don't let it dissuade me. I keep my eyes closed tightly. I listen to the oncoming traffic blaring, speeding past. I head south for the bay. I burn rubber, I take wide curves. The magnetic pull of the earth carries me. I drift for a half hour, blind as Gary Lowers.
    When I open my eyes, I'm skidding on a beach lane covered by sand.
    He's close. I picture him clearly. He's got a little campfire going and he's practicing moves with his knife, deciding on what he's going to do to the next kid. It looks like he's going for the internal organs. He's drilling on how to cut out the kidneys, the liver. He's going to make haggis and feed it to everybody at the next party.
    The other Knights of the Black Circle flicker in and out of being, by the light of the fire. They provoke him, they drape themselves around him, full of love, full of hate. The blade swerves, slashes, and severs. Ricky's breathing heavily. He dances on the sand as the waves crash behind him.
    I see him stabbing down, slashing, sneaking up, pulling hair, tonguing, nipping. I crack the window an inch, and I can hear him singing another heavy metal song, the trite lyrics almost laughable.
    A half-mile away I tumble to an old south shore graveyard. I drive slowly, keeping an eye out. Ricky's flames ought to lead me right to him, unless he's caught on. He might've kicked the fire out by now.
    The dead have their grievances. They tug for my attention. They pack decades-dead names into my head. Above it all I hear Gwen's voice, asking to be fucked.
    I park and get out. The graveyard is nothing more than a few scattered stones. The area's been eroded, the graveyard buried by sand and sawgrass and snow fencing. I drift past the headstones, waiting for Ricky and his circle to fall down on me from the dunes. I light a cigarette and smoke, leaning back against the side of the Mustang. I give myself up to them. My headlights offer a dim illumination. The clouds of night birds have followed me to the shore, and they fill the infinitely forbidding sky.
    Gwen's screams are muffled into moans. A part of me loves the noise of it, the honest and true depth of despair and pain. I'm human. I crave human anguish. My own or anyone else's.
    It's probably a trap but I rush across the beach hunting for her. The moon wants to see, so it finally appears and turns its face down to us. I stumble over seashells and detritus hidden in the sand. My mother appears in the dark, pointing out where I must go.
    I come to Gwen huddled inside a dug-out hole behind the dunes. Gwen is naked, bound by rope, covered in blood, a gag firmly placed in her mouth. The bandages binding her many cuts and scratches from last night's love- and hate-making have unfurled in the wind. There are fresh razor slashes on her belly, breasts, and thighs. The trails of pulsing blood have run together, but I know the cuts spell out words, covenants, pledges. The waves continue to crash, foam and seaweed rushing towards my feet.
    Maybe he's left her here to show that he owns all of my women. Maybe it's meant to infuriate me, or to turn me on.
    Gwen weeps and whines at me. She kicks at the bottom of the pit. The words on her burn so brightly that I have to shade my eyes.
    Breaking from the dark, two members of the Knights of the Black Circle snarl curses at me in their language of desecration. They're each holding a straight razor. I'm surprised they've become so banal, but the longer they stick with Ricky the worse it will become. As they claim and reshape him, he is doing the same to them. They walk toward me, slow and cool and casual as the front line of grunts in Lucifer's army.
    Gwen's moaning is a contrapuntal to the quick breathing and occasional bursts of laughter coming from Ricky's boys. The music of it fills me. I stand my ground and wonder if Linda is dead yet. If Gwen will even care now, one way or the other.
    She's managed to work the gag loose. She has a very powerful tongue.
    Regardless of the fact that she's probably bleeding to death at the bottom of a pit, Gwen still gives orders. She tells me to murder them. She demands that I do it slowly. She promises to fuck me righteously if I kill these two bastards. She burns with hellish radiance.
    I search for Ricky. I can feel him, watching, those demented, savage eyes are on me.
    I call to him. I do it silently and I do it loudly. "Ricky!"
    The knights raise their blades and slash at the air. Streaks of fiery red hang the air. The whistling razors make me think of my father teaching me to shave when I was a kid. It's one of the few memories of him that make me grin. My face covered in shaving cream and my old man bonding with me, weapon in hand, passing on yet another ritual of manhood. This one about power too. A nick at the jugular could bleed you out in minutes. My mother watched closely. My mother stood guard, in the bathroom door. He was afraid of her. He had every right to be.
    Ricky's boys know how to invoke even greater evils than themselves. Their recitations and invocations draw more and more energy from the world. Ricky's fire dims, the moon dulls, and Gwen weakens in her struggles. My knees tremble but I keep on my feet.
    They leap and glide forward almost as if on wings, swinging the razors back and forth, the arcs of red light flashing across the sand. I duck and bring my knee up into one groin, turn and elbow the other in the face. They grunt with almost childlike wonder. They know pain but not this kind of pain. This is a mortal, human pain, something that's usually beneath them, except when they influence and come to be influenced by mutts like Ricky Kelso.
    They both move across the graveyard sawgrass with a whuff of air that sounds like a cancer patient's final breath. My violent tendencies take over. With their own razors I do things that are imaginative and completely unnecessary. I'm probably laughing while I do it. Perhaps, on some level, so are they. We're all learning so much about the ridiculous nature of the universe.
    I shout for Ricky again. In the heat of midnight I burn brightly. Down in her pit Gwen shouts again but her voice is nothing more than one long whining buzz.
    By the time it's done, and I help her from the grave and unknot the ropes, and use the dirty bandages to tie off the worst of her new wounds, her flesh thick with new scars, Ricky's boys can do little more than shudder and jerk, enraptured by their own agony. Their shadowed faces seem to smile. They roll in the dark and mewl thank yous in a tongue that is heavy with venom. I've left them their eyes, but I've taken everything else.
    Gwen is awed, as she should be. It all excites her. Her wounds don't weaken her sex drive. Ricky has run off. I shout and run up and down the beach, but Ricky is gone. Gwen drags me down on the dune and I decide what the hell. She wants me to cut off her tits. She wants me to chew out her throat. She wants me to help her transcend. I settle on a nibble. LaVey the charlatan said sex and blood were the two mightiest forces. Sometimes he got the simple things right.

11

    Life has tightened to a manageable level. I have a new function. I exist for one thing at a time now. I need to find Ricky.
    It takes time. He's hidden himself well. In the meanwhile I do what he does. I live on the streets of Northport. It's a small, quaint town and they want to keep it that way. The cops patrol in high volume. I don't sleep much. I keep watch, but not closely enough.
    I keep moving. The spiral shrinks. I think about him and I dream about him and I feel him in cemeteries playing with the dead. Three days pass and he still eludes me. Another kid has gone missing. I visit Linda in the ICU. She's mostly incoherent. Her fever spikes at 108 and she falls into a coma. Forty-eight hours later they're still not sure if she's brain damaged or if she'll ever wake up.
    Ricky's crows circle above and follow the Mustang day and night. I slip into Aztakea Woods one afternoon and tell Gary Lowers my half-forgotten secrets. He might pass them on, but I risk it. He's decomposing but his presence hasn't diminished. He takes strength from his audience. There are hundreds of different tracks around his body. The entire graduating class must have stopped by.
    Once the words begin to tumble from me there's no way to stop them.
    Lowers's ruined face seems to stir subtly as if he's contemplating all I'm saying. He appears to be sympathetic and understanding. He knows where I'm coming from, knows where I'm going. The crows descend and pluck at the frayed muscle of his throat, as if to stop him from speaking. But his voice is clear and full of warmth.
    As I sit there, a couple of junior high kids come trudging up the trail. A boy and a chick four or five years younger than me, mouths curled in barely contained exhilaration, eyes as old as the bottom of the desert.
    They're surprised to see me, wondering if they're in trouble. They turn to bolt. I say nothing to them. There's nothing to say.
    They decide to stay. They light a joint and pass it back and forth before offering it to me. They hold the roach by an alligator clip. I take a hit and can taste the oils from Ricky's fingers on the rolling papers. He's dealt them the weed.
    The boy can't resist conversing.
    "You think it's true?" he asks me. "You think he really said that he loved his mother?"
    "Yes, I believe so."
    He nods in his stoner way. The girl nods with him. The boy huffs smoke over the corpse. "They lit him on fire."
    "Yes."
    "They took his eyes. How could he stand that?"
    "I think he was tough as the great iron door at the entrance to Hell."
    "Hells yeah."
    He carries a copy of the Satanic Bible the same way that Ricky does. It's halfway out his back pocket. Baphomet finds me again. He grins and winks at me. I wink back.
    I wait for the kids to pull the book like pulling a gun, like drawing an athame, a witch's blade. When they finally do, they read a false and hollow incantation. They draw a pentagram around Lowers's body with a stick. There are outlines of other pentagrams in the dirt too, partially erased by the rain and nearly obliterated by leaves crushed by couples making awful love.
    "What about the guy who did it?" the boy asks.
    "What about him?"
    "You think…you know…that he was possessed? That demons told him to do it? That crows talked to him and the trees bowed down?"
    "No."
    The girl whispers in the boy's ear. Gary Lowers's knows what they're saying. So do I. So do the crows. So do the bugs in Gary's dead, toothless mouth.
    This gets boring. This gets tiring. I've enjoyed my talk with Gary, but now it's over. I stand just as the boy rushes me, tugging his mother's stolen butcher knife from the small of his back. He swings the point toward my heart. I snap my forearm across the inside of his wrist and he drops the knife as his hand goes numb. I give him a short chop in the throat and he collapses to his knees, gagging.
    I pick up the knife and remember my mother cooking dinner, cutting fat from my father's steak, showing me at length how to slice meat. I picture the boy's flayed flesh wrapped neatly and laid out on a reliquary. The girl runs up the trail, screaming. "Don't rape me! Please don't rape me!"
    Compared to Linda and Gwen she's not even pretty enough to fuck, much less rape. It's insulting that she thinks I would.
    I grab her by her dirty blonde hair and yank her head back, exposing her throat. I place the dull edge of the blade to her carotid and hug her to me like every person in my life that I hate but want to love. Like everyone I love who's dead. Because of me or for any other reason. There's not that many but they cling and grow heavier and heavier the farther on you go.
    I kiss her under the ear and her boyfriend has enough breath to cry out, "No!"
    "Do you love her?" I ask.
    "Yes!"
    "Would you die for her?"
    There's no hesitation. "Yes!"
    It's easy to say when you're stoned. I check his eyes. Beneath the setting sun they're pinpoints lit by molten gold.
    "You love him?" I ask her. "And think about it carefully before you answer. Because one of you has to die."
    She bursts into tears. "We were only messing around. We didn't mean anything!"
    "He tried to stab me in the heart."
    "No no, it was just a…a game. We were playing. It…it…"
    "You wanted to screw while my hot blood pumped across your tits, didn't you?"
    "No!"
    "Don't lie to me. I'm the king of lies, I'm the master of lies. I'm Black Shuck."
    "I don't know what you're talking about!"
    "And you, you're the one who gets to choose. So, shall it be him or you?"
    "Him!" she shouts. "Kill him! Cut his dick off, cut his throat, I don't care. Him! Do it to him."
    "Sure, but then you have to fuck me while his blood jets over us."
    "I want to!"
    It's all so dramatic. That's really all that they want. To be on a human stage full of pith and tragedy, so long as it's not their own. Ricky understands the truth. So did Gary, even before they took his eyes from him.
    I kick her in the ass and she goes flying into the brush. The boy attacks and I slash him across the forehead so blood runs down his face in a death mask. "You bastard!" he moans. He holds his arms out in front of him, blindly staggering, searching for the girl. She yelps and he trips over her, and they both sprawl into the weeds. They find each other on their knees and kiss and groan and weep. It'll keep them happy for a while.
    I stare at myself in the side of the shining blade. The birds chitter and squawk, laughing. So do the angels of death hovering high in the trees. It's all right. I have to admit that it's a ridiculous story bound to become myth. Somehow I've become a part of it, though no one will ever know in the retelling.
    I spin and hurl the knife upward and pierce the heart of a crow. Or perhaps it's a black angel simply posing as a crow. The blade sails down with the impaled bird and lands a few inches from Gary Lowers's head. The point of the knife thunks within the defined lines of the latest pentagram. Let the next group of curious children think on it.

12

    I wake up behind the steering wheel, in the lot of Cow Harbor Park. Ricky is laying out on the hood of the Coupe, covered in blood, staring in at me through the windshield.
    I know it's Linda's blood. I understand that he's murdered her in her coma. Maybe it was an act of love or one of faith.
    His lunatic eyes whirl with the knowledge of himself, the PCP and LSD ravaging his system. It opens doors for him that should stay closed. He weighs no more than a hundred pounds. The bones of his face are trying to squeeze past his skin. His skeletal rictus grin explains nothing and everything at the same time.
    He scratches at the windshield as if he wants in. I stare at him. My expression, I'm guessing, is inviting.
    There's no sun but shadows of bars across his face. He laughs and thrashes, writhing on the hood of the Mustang, then breaks into a low mewling. Eventually he's weeping. His tears fleck the glass like a summer rain. The other Knights of the Black Circle sit in his car, unmoving, weak, ineffectual, already fading away.
    "I called in an anonymous tip," Ricky sobs. "I told them where Gary's body was. I told them who murdered him."
    Ricky raises his chin and the insanity drains from him, drop by drop, until he's the most lucid I've ever seen him. The shadows run over him like black paint. They reshape themselves. The bars become something else. I watch them and hunch over the wheel more closely. Soon I see there's a noose around his neck.
    He says, "I'm going to hang, aren't I? You know it, don't you, Black Shuck? You see it."
    I don't bother to respond. He stares out at the trees as the wind moves through them. They wave, billow, beckon, and bow. The tips of Ricky's fingers are discolored from dirt, weed, pills, and infection. He draws arcane symbols on my windshield before me and they burn for an instant before they disappear like he will soon disappear. He spells his name for me. He spells mine as well. He kisses the windshield as if he's making love to me with his lips. He bites down on his tongue until he chews off the end of it. Then he spits blood across the glass. I nod to him through the red streams.
    He chuckles, runs to his car, and drives off, alone. His knights have abandoned him, as he must've known they would. They've returned from where they came. The sky is full of black wings.
    That evening Ricky Kelso is arrested for the murder of Gary Lowers.
    Two days later he hangs himself in jail.

PART II

CLOWN IN THE MOONLIGHT

1

    They think it's cute, talking about all the secret ways they can cut someone's throat.
    Jenx keeps a razor blade in his mouth wedged between his lower lip and cheek. He wears a beard because he's fucked up a couple of times and slashed open the side of his face.
    Kip has a butterfly knife hidden in a hidden pocket in his black trench coat. You can frisk him and you won't find it. But then, snap, he can whirl it out and stick it under your chin. He presses it hard but not too hard. Just hard enough to get a single bead of blood rolling.
    Mercy wears a wreath of razor wire tying back her savage curls. She can reach up, draw the wire out, and unknot it a special way so it won't catch in her hair. It's a very slick move. She's practiced it for weeks, for months, for millennia. I watch as she gets a two-handed grip and whips the garrote around a mannequin's neck to show how she can tighten her hold and take off somebody's head in thirty seconds. She puts real muscle into it, the wire cutting deep into the plastic as she saws back and forth. I suspect the White Queen won't be happy that someone's ruined her dummy. Jenks and Kip urge Mercy on as chips fly through the air. When she's done she tosses the garroted dummy's head into my lap and they all giggle and yawp.
    They call themselves the New Knights of the Black Circle.
    A half hour goes by. In the living room the White Queen, in her white muumuu, with daffodils in her hair, now holds court with her coven, all thirteen of them sitting on divans and loveseats. In the den her husband, Grimm, shows videos of Japornimation to a group of nerdy fat asses. Grimm talks about side arms, rifles, and machine guns whenever the TV screen isn't filled with little Asian girls in school uniforms turning into cyborgs or getting raped by tentacles from another dimension. He pops one tape out of the VCR and slaps in another.
    He's heavily tattooed. A ring of M-16 shells creep around his left calf. The kraken destroying an 18th century three-mast shipping vessel covers over most of his right arm from elbow to wrist. He goes shirtless, showing off the autopsy scars and stitches tattooed on his chest.
    I glance around wondering what I'm doing here.
    It has something to do with Ricky. It has something to do with Mercy. I was standing at the fridge door at the back of the Shake-n-Shop on Old Country Road, checking prices on milk, when she appeared at my elbow, slick and dark with a wicked smile. She reminded me of Linda. She reminded me of Gwen. She didn't look like either of them, but that smile came from the same place.
    Her hair is dyed so black that it had a faint blue tinge to it. A hint of a tattoo peeks from beneath the collar of her black leather trench coat. I can't make out what it is. I'm not supposed to. My gaze is hung up on it like a squirrel stuck in catclaw briar.
    I see a trace of a lace top too, the shadowed bulge of her pert right breast. She wears short-short blue jeans, thigh-high boots, and the store lights flash on shining metal that might be chains or studs. She has pouty, bee-stung lips that she purses for my benefit, knowing they will kill me. My breathing hitches and my chest grows tight. I want her. I envy her. I hate her at first sight, the way I hated Ricky.
    We're miles from Aztakea Woods but I can still feel that same heavy sense of fate in the air. It makes me grin. I twist the cap off the gallon of milk and take a long pull. I get a nasty look from the guy working the register, like he thinks I might make a run without paying.
    I haven't thought about Gary Lowers for a long time. I hold the plastic bottle up in a kind of salute to him.
    Mercy hits me with a black-lipped smile, amusement playing in her eyes. She strikes a pose, showing off her slim, well-muscled legs. She checks the kill spots on my body. My eyes, temple, throat, chest, groin.
    She puts a hand to the pulse in my neck and says, "Your heart's racing."
    "Yes it is," I admit.
    "Are you nervous?"
    "Always."
    She reaches out and grips me by the chin and smooshes my lips together. She bends forward and kisses me hard, without heat, without hate, without desire, tasting me the way you'd check a piece of chicken to see if it was fully cooked yet. She pulls away and tightens her grip. It hurts. She tests me. She wants to know the limits of my pain. She wants to control me into taking a swing at her, or backing off. I do nothing but wait for her to kiss me again.
    "I'm with two of my friends," she tells me. "We're wiccan. We're members of the New Knights of the Black Circle."
    She waits for me to respond. I don't. Her eyes narrow. She leans forward and tries to read me. I hold my secrets tightly and allow her to see all the rest of me. She sees that my mother is dead, that my father is gone, that I work a bum job. She's met a hundred men like me, a thousand. She hunts men like me. She leaves them in the fields, she leaves them in the alleys.
    I'm still waiting for another kiss. She eases to me and plants one.
    This time I feel her wanting. She shoves hard, her tongue licks my teeth. She laughs into my mouth. I like the sweet flavor of it.
    She breaks off with a final twisted giggle and asks, "Want to come to a party?"
    Ricky's been in the ground for almost two years. On the anniversary of his death someone tried to dig up his body but they were scared off by patrolling cops. Somebody else tried to set fire to Aztakea Woods, but it poured that night. They settled for carving a commandment in the gazebo bench.
    SAY YOU LOVE RICKY.
    I say, "I do."

2

    The house squats along a poisoned canal, set back on some dying wetland that fades into the pines of the surrounding local community college to the north. To the south is Pioneer State Mental Hospital, one of the few nuthatches on the island I haven't been locked up in yet. Its fencing has been clipped and bent aside, its manicured lawns shredded. It's become one of those areas where teenagers tear things up, rutting in the ravines, drinking six-packs on the grounds and hurling the empties at the highest windows they can reach, screaming at the sickos inside.
    Grimm and I are in the same age bracket, about five years older than everyone else at the gathering. I have a small thatch of white hair in front now that makes me a little extra sensitive around so many kids in their teens. The last party I went to was Gwen's. I still bear the scars. The teeth marks still itch.
    I stand in my leather jacket, white T-shirt, and black jeans, watching, waiting, checking the corners for Ricky.
    "You okay, man?" Grimm asks.
    "Yeah, sure."
    "Why don't you get yourself a drink?"
    "No, thanks."
    "We got some weed too, if you want. Good stuff. A little coke is going around too, if that's your thing."
    "It isn't, but thanks."
    Grimm is shaggy-headed with thick glasses, morbidly obese, going maybe four hundred pounds, but he carries it pretty well like some fat guys do. He makes quick, sharp moves, light on his feet. He practically gambols around the place, making sure his friends and the coven members have everything they need.
    "You came with Mercy, right?" he asks.
    "Yes."
    "Her and the other two, you known them long?"
    "No, not long at all."
    "I can tell."
    "What do you mean? How?"
    He stares at me, openly puzzled but not hostile, the way most people get when you turn down their hospitality.
    "You're not like them."
    "What are they like?"
    "You'll find out soon enough. Just be careful."
    I genuinely appreciate his concern. I wonder if he really knows anything about them, or if word has just filtered down. He keeps to himself, away from his wife's coven, away from anyone who doesn't share his interests.
    He moves off to the kitchen and returns to the coven offering around drinks, chips and salsa. They ignore him, even his wife, the White Queen, all of them talking about drawing down the moon and finding the proper spells and rituals to appeal to the earth goddess.
    He changes the pornie anime tape again and puts in something else that seems to be just more of the same. The kids perk up some and laugh as demons with forked dicks chase virgins with big moist eyes through the streets of Tokyo.
    I drift. I brush shoulders. I smile at hot chicks and they sometimes smile back. They sometimes withdraw as if I'm holding a meat cleaver. I sit on a bottom stair and light a cigarette. A punk with peach fuzz bums one off me.
    The conversations are full of laughter and flirting. Occasionally there's a hard edge, someone who's pissed and trying to contain himself. It's always a nerd discussing comic books or sci-fi television shows. The sharp corners of his rage wear off quickly. He acquiesces. Maybe one superhero isn't necessarily that much better than another. Friends shake hands. Friends sip beer. Friends wallow in their latent homosexuality.
    Mercy is seated on the couch, sandwiched between Jenx and Kip, three peas in the coven pod. I don't know what their story was. I don't much care. Mercy catches my eye and waggles her fingers at me and makes a gesture that I took to mean she is nearly done listening to the White Queen discuss her ceremonies and great occult powers.
    Grimm climbs across the crowd to his recliner, sits for five minutes, and then climbs out again to take me on a tour of the house. He's distracted by me, curious about me, and possibly wary of me. He wants me to take his warning about mercy and her friends seriously. I'm thankful he's such a nice guy.
    I follow him around while he shows me his gun collection, his comic book collection, and his action figure collection. A lot of the toys are still in their packaging and he hands them to me beaming proudly, naming off Star Wars characters, superheroes, and robots out of classic science fiction movies.
    Some of them I recognize from the days when my father used to take my mother and me to the drive-in. Back then, he stewed in his own pain and regrets but it hadn't started to bleed out of him yet. He was still holding on, he was still a pretty good husband and father. He got excited by films and would sit hunched in the driver's seat, hugging a bowl of popcorn to him, the awkward metal speaker hanging on his half-rolled down window. He would turn to me in the backseat and ask if I was having fun. I'd nod. My mother would feign interest in the movie and laugh when my father laughed.
    I'm impressed by Grimm. I'm impressed with anyone who can keep hold of something-anything-for so long, even if they are only toys.
    "You sure I can't offer you anything?" he asks.
    "I'm fine."
    It annoys him a little. He's a good host and doesn't like that I'm not partaking of the goodies as much as I should. Everyone else is chowing down, liquoring up, snorting, smoking, toking, fooling around. His concentration coils around me.
    So I ask about the little Japanese teenie-boppers being sexually mishandled by mutants and monsters and he perks right back up.
    "The Japanese know what it's all about," Grimm tells me. "They understand that if you indulge in fantasy, you ease the psychic and carnal constraints on yourself. The more you're repressed and censored, like we are here in the US, the greater the pressure builds until you're acting out your most violent fantasies. You do the evil or perverse deed instead of just watching them in cartoons."
    He waits for my assent. I nod and give it to him.
    He strokes his shaggy beard down into a tight, sharp point. "It's why televangelists who are always preaching out against sex are the biggest deviants of all. They're forever being caught in truck stop bathrooms with tranny hookers and double handfuls of booze and stroke mags. What everybody else figures out at twelve these preachers can only obsess about until their brains and nuts overheat."
    It seems to make about as much sense for the way things are heading as anything else, so I just wag my chin in agreement with him.
    "There's something about you, man," he says.
    "What?"
    "I don't know. You just…you just…"
    "You want me to leave."
    "No, not at all. But I have a feeling about you. You know how there's people you're drawn to? That you want to be friends with? Or enemies with? For no reason you can understand? That's how I am with you." He smiles and chuckles uncomfortably. "Maybe this weed is making me paranoid or something. Usually doesn't happen, but…this night. It's a weird night, what they're planning to do."
    "The coven?"
    "Yeah, they got some kind of ritual that's going to start later. I don't get it all. But my wife. She can do it, you know."
    "Do what?"
    "Whatever she puts her mind to. Love spells, blessings, remove curses and change your bad luck. She takes pride in showing people the way."
    "The way toward what?"
    "The way. The right way. The way of positivity. Mercy and her friends, she welcomed them into her coven so she could…rehabilitate them."
    "Do you think that's possible?"
    "Yes. My wife is powerful. She's helped people toward the right-hand path before."
    "Mercy, Jenx, and Kip call themselves the New Knights of the Black Circle," I tell him. "Do you know that name?"
    "No. Should I?"
    I would ask him about Ricky, but everyone knows Ricky's name. He's become a cultural icon since his suicide. Parents use him as an example for why heavy metal music can kill. Sociologists publish volume after volume on his case history, proving the power of peer pressure and how kids can keep an awful secret from the authorities so long as they share it among themselves. Teens emulate him, they dedicate songs to him over the radio. Not just heavy metal demonic bullshit, but love ballads. Girls weep for him. They romanticize murder and suicide and insanity. They wear T-shirts proclaiming RICKY LIVES FOREVER. I know it's the truth.
    I nod again. I don't know what else to do. I wonder why a man married to a woman who could bless you and change your bad luck would need a case full of guns, but I guess that had more to do with throwing parties with pounds of coke on hand than white magic.
    "Is that what the coven's in there doing?" I ask. "Changing people's luck? Sending out positive energy to grace everybody?"
    "Not yet. Maybe tonight. I'm not part of the coven, I don't partake in the rituals. But sometimes evil forces try to disturb the white magic, and I'm on hand to make sure that doesn't happen."
    "Are those evil forces susceptible to a snub.38 or a 12-gauge?"
    "Most things are," he says, and hits me with a leer.
    Most things aren't, but there's no point in arguing. He moves back to his recliner and talks to the nerds and I wander around the party a little more.
    From another room I gaze over the tops of heads and watch the gathered coven. They're a goofy looking bunch circling the White Queen, making little signs and gestures, spelling words in the air, waving holy plants about. I catch the scent of holly and mint.
    They hold hands and chant some kind of prayer or charm, and then the White Queen, all three hundred pounds of her, hugs each of the other members in turn. She blesses them. She points them toward positivity and love.
    Mercy makes a beeline for me. She slides up close again. She has no understanding of personal space and makes sure she rubs against me, hard and sexual, pressing her chest to mine, her lips only three inches away from mine when she speaks. She rubs the back of her knuckles against the side of my face, a gentle, soft, meaningless demonstration that makes me want to shut my eyes and let out a quiet groan.
    I have been lonely these last two years. Without Linda, without Gwen, without Ricky. I stand before my mother's grave in my solitude and desolation and ask her for advice and guidance. Sometimes I hear her voice, and sometimes I don't.
    "We're going to perform a ceremony tonight," Mercy says. She knows how ridiculous it sounds coming from her, and she can't keep a girlish giggle from fluttering free. I know it's the laugh she lets loose when she thinks of garroting boys with the razor wire wreathed in her hair.
    "What kind?" I ask.
    "A purification rite."
    "That sounds…righteous."
    "Oh it is," she assures me, her breath cool against my five o'clock shadow. "It certainly is." Then she puts her lips to my ear and whispers, "But I think there might be some sex magic to it." She wags her eyebrows and hits me with a sloe-eyed gleam while I wonder how different sex magic might be from the regular thing. "And some blood sacrifice."
    "Sacrifice," I repeat. It's a word that holds more power than she'll ever understand. I can feel the depths of the ocean stir at the sound of it. The trees around the hospital sway with its understanding.
    Mercy takes no notice. "Out there in the pines under the moon."
    Out there in the pines under the moon, where the shadows crawl, and Ricky still keeps watch. I think of the ancient cemeteries hidden beneath the floor of the forest, the hidden stones bearing names of colonists who'd died of cholera or yellow fever centuries ago. Or the mass graves in potters' fields where they buried the corpses of the patients, dead from too much electroshock, drowned in the hydrotherapy tubs, raped, impregnated by doctors, victim piled on top of victim in cardboard coffins.
    "You people certainly know how to throw a party."
    "It's not a joke, you know. Not to them. Especially Kip. He's been seriously into this for months."
    "And you? Is it a joke to you?"
    She just hits me with the grin again, eases up closer, and throws a leg around mine. Some of the nerds perk up and check out her ass. I stand my ground as she slithers around me like the serpent across the branch of the tree of knowledge. The symbols of our lives are everywhere you look. They find us no matter what we do or where we hide. She nips at my throat. She catches a vein between her teeth and licks and sucks.
    I glance over at Kip, who's reading through papers covered with symbols, discussing them with the White Queen. They seem to be on the verge of an argument. His shoulders are hunched, his eyes ablaze. He's a little heated as the White Queen points at the instructions and tries to explain them to her own satisfaction. She smiles through it all even while Kip grimaces. Her understanding only angers him more.
    Jenks has moved off from the group and sips from a bottle of Jameson's, snickering to himself. I can tell by his expression that he wants to cut something. A stray dog, a person walking by in a crowd. He wants to see blood run. In a pinch he'll bleed himself, just to see the coursing red. His gaze flicks here and there. It finally meets mine. His sneer solidifies. He likes seeing Mercy working me in the corner, up against the wall.
    "This blood sacrifice," I say. "You talking about chasing down bunnies or something a little bigger?"
    Mercy gives me a final love bite. It hurts. It arouses me. I think of Linda and Gwen and all our scars. Mercy raises her lovely face to me, her features highlighted by all that black makeup set against her wondrously white skin. The razor wreath wound in her hair flashes with reflections of the lights and television.
    She condescends and tells me, "Probably something bigger."
    "You're not going to let Kip try to reach into his secret pocket for his butterfly blade and slash open my carotid, are you?"
    She titters at that. It's the kind of titter that originally sounds adorable the first couple times you hear it, but eventually makes you want to puke.
    "That's not for me to decide," Mercy said, "it's for you. How badly do you want to live?"
    "Good question."
    "Is it?"
    "It is. Do you have an answer?"
    "I was asking you."
    Still grinning, so close that her lips land on mine from time to time as she speaks, she moves her hand to my groin. She rubs and finds me already hard. She smiles and it's her first real smile since I've met her. She's proud of making me want. Our mouths brush together. The feel of her moist breath on my face is starting to make me a little high. It's a good feeling, one I haven't had in a long while.
    "I want to live more at certain times of the day than others," I admit.
    "How about now?"
    "I'm holding out a little hope that the night might turn out to be a memorable one."
    "So, you feel like being bathed in moonlight and getting laid?"
    I picture her bathed in moonlight, naked, dancing, out in the woods, with the night birds in the tree tops, the coven writhing around us, and I feel like getting laid.
    "Sure."
    She asks, "Are you everything I need?"

3

    Of course I'm not. I'm not everything that anybody needs. I'm nothing that anybody needs. The last time I visited Linda on the coma ward I said it to her. I told her to let me go. The machines rasped and blinked and keened in response. I hid in shadow while the night nurses went on about their business. One of them, a cute little Filipino, got some action off one of the oncologists. They did it out in the open, in a free bed on the ward, in front of the eyes of more than a dozen patients frozen in time, trapped between their first and last breaths. At two in the morning Gwen turned up. I don't know how she sneaked in, or why, but she sat beside Linda in the dim room and held her hand. She said nothing at first, and did nothing, except let out quiet, tormented sobs.
    Gwen had changed a great deal since the night on the beach, in the graveyard hidden by sand and sawgrass, and Ricky's boys threw her at the bottom of the pit. With Ricky dead his influence has lessened. She was more demure, more caring, full of deeper regrets and fears. She attended college and went to church every week.
    I watched from the shadows and wondered if she was better off now, wearing sweaters buttoned to the top button, her hair pulled back, her face a little plainer without makeup. She wasn't dead and a lot of other people were. She lived through an experience that would have killed many others.
    I wanted to talk to her, but there wasn't much point. I would've only frightened her. I would've only scared her off, and she was already scared enough. I couldn't offer any kindnesses, especially after the two nights we shared. One in bed, one in the pit. One proved rage, one proved life. I wondered what she confessed to the priests, how much she'd said aloud. If she'd told the truth the Vatican would have sent word to have her exorcized, ostracized, ex-communicated. They would've huffed incense and hurled holy water in her face.
    She murmured to Linda as the machines beeped and hummed in tune with our hearts.
    "It's time to wake up. It's time that you heard me say how sorry I am for everything that happened. You're my best friend. You're my only friend. I can't go on any farther without you. I need you here."
    She washed Linda's face down with a kerchief dipped in ice water.
    I sent my will into the machines so I could live inside Linda's lungs. I was the blood beating in and out of her circulatory system. I was her brain wave activity, her mired memories, her stardancer fantasies. I was sluggish. I slept.
    I withdrew. Linda wasn't quite ready to awaken yet, but it would happen soon enough, so long as Gwen didn't quit on her. They both needed someone who had been to the same places, who'd been lured by the same black dream. They had shared love and blood. They had shared Ricky. They had shared me. They'd sipped on my rage and it had changed them as it had changed me.
    Baphomet had a long reach. So did Ricky. I could feel their presence drawing near once again. Gwen felt it too. She froze up and let out small sounds of anxiety. Ricky and the Devil waited for Linda the way they waited for everyone. They called to her across the dark oceans the same way that Gwen called to her from her bedside, begging her to return to life. Gwen wanted her friend back. Baphomet wanted his minion, his offering. I didn't know exactly what Ricky wanted, but he wanted the same thing from me.
    Gwen held Linda's hand up to her eyes, bathing her skin in tears. She whispered, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, please wake up, please come back, I swear it'll be different this time. Come back to us. Come back to me, please."
    I could almost hear Ricky's insane laughter. So could Gwen.
    On a strap around her shoulder hung her handbag. She opened it and pulled out a nickel-plated snub-nose.32. She snapped open the cylinder and checked to see if it was loaded. All six chambers were full. She snapped it closed again and sat staring at the piece for a minute.
    The Filipino nurse was getting hammered again. This time in ICU down the hall. I could hear her whining moans and the groans of her lover, the Ecuadorian night janitor. They weren't going to make their rounds and stop Gwen.
    "I'm not going to let him do anything else to us," she said.
    She pointed the barrel at Linda's forehead.
    I moved from the shadows and presented myself. I snatched the gun from her hand. Gwen gasped and took in a deep breath, preparing to scream. I dipped down and muffled her shriek with a kiss. She shouted down my throat and inflated my lungs with her terror.
    I broke off and said, "It's all right, I'm here to help."
    Gwen backed away until she hit the windows. She stood silhouetted in the dim room ignited only by moonlight. The burning silver traced her form.
    "You," she said. "What are you doing here?"
    "I just told you. I'm here to help you."
    "I don't believe you," she said.
    "Why not?" I asked. It's an honest question.
    "I know what you are. I know what you do."
    "I don't go around shooting my friends in the head." I emptied the bullets into my hand and placed the.32 back in her purse. "And after you killed her?"
    "I was going to shoot myself."
    I nodded. "Because of Ricky?"
    "Because of Ricky. And you. And…that night. And…because of what I became, what I was. I…I-"
    I turned on the lamp on the night table. The light shined down on Linda's sleeping face. In two years she hadn't lost much muscle mass at all. Despite the tubes, her arms were toned. Her face was ashen, but otherwise she looked as beautiful as the day I met her. Her mother kept her luxuriant hair well-brushed.
    I put my hand to her forehead and could feel her inside her own nightmares trying to rear away from me. I whispered the words to her that my mother used to say to me to calm my mad fevers. The machines began to warble and beat faster. My pulse rose along with them.
    Gwen said, "What are you doing? Oh God, don't kill her…don't kill her any more than you already have-"
    "Relax."
    "Please-"
    Linda hid from me in the depths of her dark dreams, lost among the shreds and scraps of muddled memories. I moved among their fragments searching for her, only to see myself in bed with her and Gwen, the three of us bleeding and covered in sweat. And at the foot of the bed stood Ricky, grinning, and Gary Lowers, blind but reaching, hungry, hard. It was an ugly fusion of truth and night terror.
    In the dream, my teeth red with her blood, I told her, "It's time to wake up now, Linda. Gwen's waiting for you with a whole new outlook on life. Your friend is here to lead you onto a new path."
    Baphomet bucked at that. I felt its rage meet my rage. The windows vibrated even though there was no wind. The Filipino nurse cried out in want and agony. Gwen said, "The shadows, they're-"
    "They don't matter," I said. "Come over here, talk to her."
    "They're swarming towards us-"
    "Come talk to her."
    "But-"
    "I won't let anything happen to you."
    "But that's all I've done for two years. I talk and talk. If she doesn't know I'm here by now."
    "Do as I say, Gwen, come speak in her ear. Let her feel your breath. Let her feel your lips. Hold her close."
    She leaned over her friend, her enemy, herself, and hugged her, and kissed her, and started muttering. A lot of what she said was trivial and referred back to when they were kids. Other things were personal, sexual, horrible, laughable. Before long Gwen was crying and giggling at the same time, and soon Linda was doing the same with her. They clenched fiercely as the machinery sounded and whooped, and the birds pecked, and the wind rose and fell, and the nurse came rushing in with her uniform misaligned. I left the hospital and got in the Mustang and drove under a moon heavy with the features of a goat.

4

    It's the same game as always, just different players, except for me. It's all my fault for playing along in the first place, but nothing of interest waits for me anywhere else. My old man is dead. My mother is dead. My gods slumber. The girls never last more than a month. They're all needy and awful in the same way. I find only what I look for. It's why I'm with Mercy right now.
    She tells me, "We're about to start the ritual."
    "Are you sure you want to go through with it?" I ask.
    "Oh yes, definitely."
    She tugs me by the wrist and leads me up the hall. The White Queen leads the group. The nerds take very little notice as the coven marches out the back door towards the wetland.
    I should probably rethink the situation before I let this girl make love to me under the evil moon near a toxic waterway. I'd had enough poison cause me strife. I'd been surrounded by venom of one sort or another most of my life. My old man had been juiced on it, my mother burned and degraded by it. It had shaped my formative years and filled my heart. I'd been surrounded by it in prison and on the ward. It had made me jump the wrong way and forced my hand into many bad decisions.
    I follow mercy and the others outside and the cool air washes over me. I watch the White Queen in her flowing white muumuu leading the ragtag band through the brush. Some of them hold high-power flashlights, and the bright shafts twine and cross and cut through the night. Mercy falls into my arms and licks at my jaw line, firing up my flesh. I bend to kiss her and she turns away.
    "It costs, you know," she says.
    The proper response to that is, Yes, I know, but I'm not feeling proper.
    "What does?"
    "Anything. Everything. Anything that you want, whatever you desire, it costs."
    I've paid out a lot over the years for the things I thought I wanted. I've paid in cash, blood, pain, freedom, love, hate, and time.
    We follow the coven out into the pines. The loamy odor makes me think of Aztakea Woods, Gary's body, and my mother's funeral. My mother, her corpse sealed inside a casket, her great soul already cast among the stars, while I stood there in the rain shoulder to shoulder with my father's shame and anger. No priest, no other mourners, even the cemetery caretaker had run for cover in the storm. Thick streams of rainwater rushed down into the hole and filled it like a sewer. I imagined rats in there already chewing on her remains. It made me hiss and steam. My old man turned away without a word and drove home without me. I plodded home through the mud, this same smell surrounding me.
    Mercy breaks from me and takes up formation with the coven around a dead tree standing in a clearing, jagged branches tilted at vicious angles. I move behind her, feeling a little too old for this crowd, looking back over my shoulder at the swaying, rustling pines. I feel eyes on me, a will at work.
    I look off in the direction of Pioneer State and wonder if up on those highest floors, perched at the cube windows, madmen and tainted women stare down at us right now. I can almost see them in their pjs and loose-fitting robes, their nails thick with clay from making ashtrays during crafts hour, wicker in their hair from weaving baskets. What might they think as they watch the flashlights maneuvering through the scrub, moonlight glazing the treetops?
    The White Queen stops and the members of the coven form themselves into a ring around the coven tree. I stick close to Mercy. It throws off the power of the triskaideka. The White Queen draws out a dagger from beneath her glowing muumuu and depicts symbols in the air with it. She speaks quietly but with great authority. I can't hear the words but I understand their meaning. The ocean is angry. The tide slams into the beach. We're about ten miles from the dunes where Ricky's boys tried to slash me to death. There's another graveyard nearby. This one might as well be the one hidden in the sand.
    The White Queen's voice grows louder. The breeze stiffens. She turns to the east and bows, then she does the same facing the west, then the north, and the south, the athame carving words, names, and ciphers in the dark.
    "With this witch's blade, my athame, I call forth Askiel, Uthrick, Pommerance, Tico-Tico, and Lafleur de Malcolm," she says. "I ask for my familiars Thorn-in-the-Crown and Percywinkle to come to me now and guide these blessed magicks. Where there is evil, there is righteousness set against it. Where there is mischief, there is nobility to balance it. Where there is corruption, there is salvation."
    Mercy whispers to me, "Which do you think I am? The mischief or the nobility?"
    "I'd have to go with mischief."
    "And you?"
    "The same."
    "I was hoping that."
    She moves her hand across my belly, rubs me the way a person might a dog, sort of scratching. Then she digs her nails in deeper until I grunt. She leans in as if to kiss me but pulls away at the last second.
    "So you're about to be purified now?" I ask.
    "As much as I ever hope to be, I suppose."
    "I wonder how much that is?"
    The tone in my voice hooks her, wakes her up some. Mercy's grin begins to go slack. My own smile hardens.
    She steps away. Each coven member performs gestures in the air with their hands. Every so often they fall back together and carry out a series of intricate actions that make the entire thing look like a well-rehearsed ballet recital. I wonder how long they've been doing this, how many times they've stood in this field surrounding a dead tree, beneath the eyes of the moon. The night birds start to sing.
    Jenks slides up beside me from out of the darkness. His breath is rancid with whiskey. He holds the flashlight up to his face and pulls faces. His eyes are wild with cocaine, almost as insane as Ricky's were on acid.
    "Pretty ridiculous, eh?" he says.
    "Beats sitting at home watching the news."
    "Probably right about that. I still don't like it."
    "Why not?"
    He scoffs. "If you want anything in this world, you have to earn it, fight for it, or steal it. Dancing around in the darkness and calling on spirits named fuckin' Percywinkle is just moronic."
    "Then why did you join the coven?"
    "Like you said, it beats staying at home. Besides-"
    "Besides," Mercy joins in. "We're all about to get naked."
    Jenks's laugh is guttural and obnoxious. So is Mercy's. So is mine.
    Kip's voice soon becomes the loudest and clearest among the coven. "To me now, Utheziel. To me now the north wind. To me now golden fire, the chalice, the dagger, the aspect of the heart. To me now the Nephilim, the despised, the wondrous, the gargantuan."
    The members return to their stations, except for Mercy, who leaves my side and moves alone to stand at the base of the tree, brushing herself against those fierce, angular branches. The others turn their flashlights to illuminate her. I fade back. I allow the triskaideka to reign. I wait in the weeds. I stand on lost graves.
    Mercy holds her hands out to me.
    She wags her eyebrows and turns on that killer smile again.
    Her wreath of razors flashes with burning silver.
    She throws off her leather coat and skins out of her boots, weaving and angling all around, gyrating and slithering.
    And then she dances.
    And in her moonlit eyes she seems to be dancing only for me.
    She performs like a professional stripper working the circuit. The wetland is her stage. The coven is her audience. The birds fly against the black sky, pivoting, wheeling, rising, arching. Maybe she is offering herself to me. Maybe she waits to garrote me and offer my ashes to the dead and martyred. It doesn't matter to me. There is something about her that entices and irritates me. It is the same story for every woman I've had. I can see her teeth blaze every so often. Her black lipstick and eye shadow frame her alabaster face so that she appears to be a harlequin. She opens the top two buttons of her blouse and the curve of her breasts are heavy and exquisite. The tattoo at her neck looks like a raven.
    For a moment I see other figures out there, draped in black, silhouetted in the slashes of flashlight. The girl has brought my past alive within me. I recognize faces, body language, intent. I watch dead men looming. It is easy to get distracted.
    The men of the coven watch Mercy. They all want her. So do some of the women. She is desirable in the way that make lovers stupid, especially now, bathed from above. I can smell a hint of methane in the wind. It takes nothing at all to stand in the wetlands with strangers, breathing in the stink of decomposing bodies around you. Mercy's bare feet tamp out a staccato rhythm that beats louder than the pulse in my temple.
    She sweeps in close to me, shakes her hair wildly in my face, and a barb catches me across the chin. She withdraws. I thumb blood away.
    Jenks puts his arm around me, dips his head and draws me into a huddle of clandestine mystery as he speaks quietly in my ear.
    "You ready to fuck Mercy yet?"
    Of course I don't like the way he says it, half with a sneer and half with a laugh. No one else glances my way, not the White Queen, not even Mercy. My back muscles tighten and my stomach dips. Ricky urges me to tear his Jenks's eyes out. Gary Lowers loves his mother. He knows I love my mother too.
    I turn to Jenks. "When I am it'll be between her and me."
    He puts a hand to my chest and pushes hard, forcing me back a step. "No, it's between me and you. You pay me."
    "I pay you what?"
    "Depends on what you want. Half and half is one-twenty. Around the world three hundred, you want the whole night it's five, and that's a bargain. Believe me, I know."
    "You know."
    "I know." He actually holds out his hand. "Payable now, up front."
    He snaps his fingers.
    I look over at Mercy, the silver studs on her short-shorts burning. She dances among flashlight rays that seem to cut her to ribbons. She meets my eyes. I realize what a dupe I've been. She'd spotted me and off the cuff had known I was the loneliest, horniest, most futile asshole in a long line of them. A gray-haired punk old before his time, full of need and empty of action. A couple of air kisses in my direction, a hand to my neck, and I'd be hers. She'd even hinted at her true intention. Whatever you desire, it costs. And I'd been too eager to see what she was actually talking about, distracted by ritual and subjugation.
    Jenks still has his hand out. He snaps his fingers again, says, "Come on, c'mon. You going to kick in or are you going to let a fine ass like that get away from you?"
    I keep my gaze on Mercy as she snakes her way across the field, dancing and gyrating, sweaty and laughing.
    "What about me makes you think I have five hundred bucks on me?" I asked.
    "We can always hit an ATM."
    "And how do you know I have that much in my bank account?"
    "What else are you going to spend your cash on, man? Trips to the French Riviera? You've got no woman. You drink milk, for Christ's sake. You don't do drugs. You live in a dive someplace, you've got no friends and no wife and no kids."
    "And how do you know all that about me?" I ask, genuinely interested.
    He frowns like I've asked the dumbest question he's ever heard. Maybe it is. "It's written in your face, man. Don't you know that? Don't you see that every morning when you're shaving?"
    My expression must be fairly absurd because he starts to chuckle, and then guffaws.
    Mercy's dance ends and some of the men can't contain themselves. They whistle and hoot. Not very becoming behavior for a coven.
    The White Queen tries to stop the noise with a hiss, but the guys keep going and Mercy even takes a bow. It pisses off Kip, who appears to be serious about the rite. He growls, "That's enough. This is a solemn ceremony."
    Mercy steps back to the tree and kneels at it in caricature of pagan worship. Her harlequin's face appears to be poised on the edge of laughter.
    Dropping her chin to her chest, the White Queen begins to chant, holding the athame tightly in both hands. The blade dips and jerks, turning her as it moves. It seems to be alive, like she can barely hold onto it.
    She cries out and spins, and her arms are wrenched and yanked this way and that by the trembling knife. Wheeling, she faces me, her arms jutting forward, the dagger pointing at my heart.
    She says, "It's you. The spirits want you."
    "Yes," I admit. "They want me. And they want all the rest of you too."
    She takes two fumbling steps in my direction and then stops. The athame begins to pull her away in a different direction. She wanders with it, mewling. She struggles to let go of the handle, but can't. The other members begin to gasp, mumble, titter nervously, make sounds of surprise and disbelief.
    I turn to Jenks. I feel the first real smile of the evening crawl across my face.
    I reach out and grip his wrist hard enough to make him drop the flashlight.
    "Hey!" he cries.
    It rolls at my feet and I kick it aside, the beam illuminating nothing now.
    "Hey…my wrist…stop-"
    I grip tighter. I pull him closer, the night sky playing in his moist eyes. "You really know how to steal the last remnant of a man's self-respect, don't you, Jenks?"
    "What? It's dark, I can't-"
    "You think I don't need that last bit of honor? That last piece of my own sense of self-worth? You think I'll turn that over to you without a fight?"
    "Hey, man, don't-"
    "I didn't give it to Baphomet. I didn't give it to my father. I didn't give it to Ricky. You really believe I'll hand it over to a piece of wet shit like you?"
    "Hey, man, hey! Hey!"
    The bones in his wrist grind together and he tries to shriek, but the agony steals his air.
    "You think I don't have repressions and pressures building up inside of me. You think I don't have violent fantasies just looking for a way out of my head? What am I, just a clown out here in the moonlight? No. No. I am rage."
    Kip begins to shout. "I call forth Bathal, Bathei, Bathezel, Bathezuwen," he says. "I ask for my familiars Three-Together-in-the-Blind-Eye, Hildegrance, and Winter's Leg to come to me now and guide these blessed magicks. Where there is abomination, there is integrity set against it. Where there is devilment, there is dignity to balance it. Where I am lacking, there is redemption. Where there is sin, there is confession. My misdeeds are countered with my repentance."
    I let Jenks go and he draws away, unable to rub his wrist. "You broke it," he whines. "I'm going to hurt you now. I'm going to hurt you bad." He smiles, trying to hang on to his dwindling cool. "You bastard-"
    "Keep grinning, Jenks. That's right, just like that."
    I grip his chin tightly in my left hand, pressing hard into the nerve ganglia under his ear with my right so that his jaw pops open. I reached into his mouth. He struggles for a moment and I kick his feet out from under him. I keep hold of his jaw on the way down. I find the razor he keeps stashed between his gum and his cheek, the one he said he could slip out any time and slice somebody. It's a nice move if you practiced it. I'd seen guys go down with cut throats on the yard. Their jugular veins leaking, an eye taken out, or their faces marred forever by jagged gutters.
    Mercy had been right. Blood sacrifices might be in order.
    I gash him high on forehead with the razor and blood pours into his eyes. He doesn't feel any pain yet and just says, "What…? What are you doing to me?" Then I slice again in the same place, right at the base of his hairline. The flesh parts like muslin cloth. I grab hold of his hair and wrench it. His scalp starts to come off.
    Jenks takes one long, deep breath, inflating his lungs and readying himself to scream. I drive a nasty left hook under his heart and cut his wind off. Then I pull on his hair even harder and feel half of his head of hair tear free from his skull. It flaps sideways exposing the burnished skull beneath. In the moonlight, it seems to beam.
    "I think I'll want her the whole night for five hundred," I say. "I'll tally up with Mercy, right?"
    I hammer him across the jaw and let him fall away into weeds, slipping back into darkness.
    The ritual is almost over. Most of the coven members were just bored twenty-somethings looking for a way to kill part of the evening before hitting Grimm's top shelf. The White Queen speaks a final blessing, with Mercy still praying at the tree in the center of the clearing. The others begin to split up, walking back to the house. I heft the flashlight and Kip comes towards me.
    "Quite a performance," I say.
    He takes affront. "This was the real thing. We were calling down power. We were fueling our own destinies. Taking matters into our own hands."
    "Is that right?"
    His teeth are tiny, sharp, and yellow. "Jenks tell you how much we wanted?"
    "He did," I say. "So, if you're really into witchcraft shit then how do you split your focus between calling down Three-Together-in-the-Blind-Eye and Hildegrance while playing the pimp?"
    "Hey, you don't have to go for it. It's your choice. But it'll be a waste, I can tell you that. You've never had anyone like Mercy before."
    "Yeah?"
    "I know."
    "You know?"
    "I know."
    I turn and look at her speaking words I can't catch. I hear Ricky's name, but I always hear Ricky's name. The White Queen stands near, the dagger in her hand. The lunatics in Pioneer State are smoking good weed and putting out the roaches in one of their handmade ashtrays. Laughing at us, so ludicrous down here. Tomorrow when they roam the grounds of the hospital there will be even more toxic blood coursing through the veins of the earth.
    "Where's Jenks?" Kip asks.
    "Right at your feet."
    He swings his flashlight down and spots his friend there, his fellow pimp, mumbling in an agonized semi-consciousness, his face completely red, his bright skull in view, having taken matters into his own hands, fueling his destiny, and receiving his reward.
    In one fluid move I slide my hand into Kip's jacket, dig deep until I find the slit to his secret pocket, and get my fingers around his butterfly blade. I whirl it open but don't withdraw it. I get my left arm around his throat and turn into him with the knife, slashing upwards. He screams beneath my palm and I tighten my hold even more. I angle the blade between his ribs and prod it about an inch into his lung. I can practically hear it deflate.
    Kip begins sucking air through his teeth, hardly able to breathe, wheezing in mockery to the blowing wind. I leave the knife in him and dump him beside his buddy in the brush.
    I walk to the coven tree.
    The White Queen sees me coming and the athame spins her rotund body about, the point aimed at my face this time, as she recites spells of protection. She draws a six-pointed star in the air, the moon flashing off the edge of the knife and leaving an after-image behind it. "Come no farther, Black Shuck. I stand at the right hand of Michael, he who is Machen, and Gabriel, he who is Shamain, and Cameol, he who is Machon."
    "You point that at me one more time, fatso," I say, "and I'm going to have to stick it in your eye."
    Mercy tries to get to her feet but was having a hard time of it, still tapped out from the delirious dancing, a confused expression on her face.
    With a sickly war cry, the White Queen rears and lunges at me. She has a lot of horsepower behind her and nearly bowls me over. The athame slashes again leaving a silver moonlit trail behind in my eyes as I feel a sting in my chest. She's nicked me.
    She lashes out again and I punch her in the stomach. My fist sinks in six inches. She lets out a sickly, "Ooof!" and drops onto her face. I snatch up the dagger and kick her in her fat ass. The rage is more powerful than the tide, washing over me, drowning me, commanding me.
    "Go on back home, lady. You can start looking for new members tomorrow."
    She turns over and glares at me. "The spirits dwell inside you."
    "If your husband shows up with any of his guns, I'm going to have to kill him. You understand that?"
    "Satanus infernus, you're an empty shell animated with disease and malfeasance. Black Shuck. Black Shuck. Do you even realize it? You're inhabited. You're possessed. You're dead. You're long dead."
    I've been dead so many times I can't count them anymore. I was killed by my father over and over when I was a boy. On the ward they murdered us by inches with electricity and water. My first night in prison I pulled a seven man train and was left deader than hell. Of course I am as dead as Gary, as dead as Ricky, as dead as Linda. Isn't everybody?
    "You're getting on my nerves, lady."
    I draw my arm back and smack her in the forehead with the pommel of the blade. It makes a sickening thud but I don't feel her skull fracture beneath the blow. She would probably live.
    Then I am finally alone with Mercy.
    The grin is still there on her pouty lips, murdering me. It is as much a part of her as anything else. The raven glowers. I want to catch its neck in my teeth.
    "How are you feeling?" I ask her.
    "Starting to come down a little."
    "That's too bad."
    "What's happened?" She stares at the White Queen. "What's happening?"
    "Just a little mischief."
    Her eyes unfocus again, that harlequin smile beginning to flatten out some. I shake her hard and she looks at me, and a subtle snake of fear begins to slither into her expression.
    "Only five hundred, huh?" I ask. "You sure you're not selling yourself short?" I open my wallet and toss bills at her. Tens, twenties, singles. I snap my credit cards against her face. "Visa okay?"
    "Don't, please-"
    Don't, please. I beg the rage to release me. I call for my mother to find the strength to help form beyond the veil. I feel Baphomet at my left hand, Ricky at my right. I call on Gary Lowers to aid me in this time of need, and he refuses. He asks why I never buried him. He asks why I didn't call the police. He asks for his mother as I ask for mine.
    I put a hand to the pulse in her neck and say, "Your heart's racing."
    "I'm scared. You…you…"
    "Don't be afraid, Mercy."
    I reach into her wild curls and get my hands around the razor wire. My fingers begin to bleed immediately. I unwind the wreath of barbs and pull it free. She squeals in pain and a pulse of blood arcs against my cheek.
    "What are you?" she asks. "Are you…are you Nephilim? Askiel, Uthrick…?
    "…Pommerance, Tico-Tico…Bathal, Bathei, Winter's Leg…"
    "Are you abomination?"
    "You really want to find out?" I ask.
    She nods, but tears well and she sniffles and whimpers, "Oh God-"
    "I'm mischief. I'm corruption. Maybe I'm salvation. Whatever you desire, Mercy…remember, it costs."
    "No, you're-" She falls into my arms one more time and I force my mouth against hers and let my teeth slide down across the raven. I bite hard and she screams. "Please-give me…no…!"
    "I'm just a man, baby," I say, alive in rage, alive in death, alive with my black life, pressing her back against the coven tree and then drawing her down beside me in the field. Something breaks inside my chest that might be a laugh or might be my heart. Venom fills my mouth. I kiss her and she struggles. I twist the razor wire around her throat, tug gently, and she lets out an erotic moan. She tries to pull away and her throat spurts. I'd watched her closely. All I had to do was tighten my draw a little more, saw back and forth, and her head would come off.
    Her eyes are black and full of terror, awe, and desire, the same as mine. "I'm everything you need," I tell her, and I am.

PART III

RECOGNITION

1

    Ricky's shadow follows me down through the years. I put my violent tendencies to work and become a narc. They say you can't be a police officer if you've got a felony jacket but narcotics and vice play by their own set of rules. My partners are gung ho and staunch men of justice when they're not robbing dealers or acting as couriers for the mob. The Teflon Don keeps us all busy, whether we're trying to bring him in or keep him out of jail. Old-timers on the force all have definitive lines between right and wrong, and cross them freely without conscience.
    I take money. I let big shots go. I don't rock the lifeboat. I bully informants. I shack with whores. I keep the streets clean. I work my beat in Manhattan and rise through the ranks. The mayor personally pins medals on my chest. The headlines hail a hero. I do what's expected of me, mostly. On occasion, when the world grows too wide beyond the windshield of my patrol car, and there's a sheen on the glass as if it's stained by spit-up blood, I drive around the worst neighborhoods in the five boroughs, and find where the mutilated bodies are laid out in the open.
    In the woods, the alleys, and abandoned apartment buildings in the meat packing district, the corpses rest. I talk and they listen. I watch over them before the kids come around, leading their friends in packs. The teens always come ready to party, and we share a beer or a J or a girl, and play out the continuous rituals of the ages. Sometimes they try and outplay me. They're packed and I'm packed. Every so often it leads to a shootout or a knife fight or a bloodletting. So far I haven't been taken down, but there's always the chance, and I keep hoping.
    Ricky's shadow is often nearby, gesturing, sniggering. I spot it from time to time, falling across the faces of friends and strangers. He knew if his legend was going to transcend itself, the meaning of it all had to remain a mystery. A riddle that would continue to fuel and reflect the times, his name spoken in whispers, carved alongside the name of Satan. He had to die in a grand gesture, by his own hand. He urges me to do the same.
    Three more years have gone by and Linda and Gwen live together in an apartment in Brooklyn Heights. Linda's still in a wheelchair. They go to mass twice a week. They usually arrive at church in time for Vespers. I sit in the back pew and watch. I stare at Christ. Christ stares at me.
    Teens whittle down the posts and benches of the gazebo in Cow Harbor Park, carving SAY YOU LOVE SATAN and SAY YOU LOVE RICKY and RICKY LIVES FOREVER and RICKY BURNS IN HELL.
    The last time I visited her in her apartment, hiding in shadow, her eyes shot open and she sat straight up in bed. She aimed her gaze at the corner where I hid and said, "The Acid King, he's behind you." She smiled and let out a sharp bark of laughter before easing her head back down to the pillow. She watched me closely for thirty seconds, then shut her eyes again. Gwen rushed in and said, "I know you're here."
    I make more busts. I lose a partner. I'm under investigation for bribes. I beat the rap.
    At dawn, the crows tap at my window and get me moving early. I run through Central Park as the sun fires the horizon. The wind's got my name on it, and I keep turning, looking, knowing it's going to happen again.
    Maybe I can stop it. Maybe I don't want to.
    As I come around a bend in the trail I see a group of kids hunched over her, a woman dressed in a yellow running suit, now covered in blood. I can see how it'll go down for the world, the headlines, the cultural icon she's about to become, as famous as Ricky. The Central Park Jogger, that has the right ring. I sprint towards them, shouting for them to halt, halt, and then, finally, as I am meant to do, calling Ricky's name. They rise from her, buckling their belts, wiping their mouths. They wag their chins at me and gesture like we're old friends. One of them has taken her eye. It stares. It finds me. It recognizes me. He smiles before he runs off, holding her eye above his head like a trophy, and as he tosses it and catches it, flings it and snatches it, grinning, the trees bend over and bow down to him.

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