The shelter I was staying at smelled of old wet socks. The beds were lice infested, and if I had known before, I would have stayed on the streets. But it was getting colder, and stealing from street merchants and stores were getting tougher as the proprietors got to know my face...or my smell I should say.
I had been living on the streets for the better part of the year. Owning nothing else but the clothes on my back and a beat up paperback copy of Stories of Richard Matheson. I walked away from my previous life, regular place to stay, a girl, money...and protection from a Demon.
Success ain't all it's cracked up to be.
I was tired. Tired of people knowing my name, Pete Chambers. Tired of the weird in my life. The double-cross. The cops too stupid or scared to believe in oddball shit that happens in this Godforsaken town. I wanted to go back to being a small time hustler and grifter.
So I disappeared. Or so I thought I had.
It seemed everyone in the shelter had went to bed except me and this vagrant they call Dim. Dim was small, sixty years of age, or so he looked it. He wore clothing he'd made from several different items. One noticeable piece was a plastic bag for the sleeves of his shirt. He always wore a deer hunter cap. To look at him, a person would think he was more crazy than the street people in popular culture. Dim couldn't be further from that. He said he used to be a University Professor and at times he exposed his huge brain to me.
“ Hey Chambers, did you hear what happened to the mayor?” Dim said over a giant bowl of white rice. I told him I hadn't heard, and frankly, I wasn't interested. “Oh, boy-o. You'll be interested. While the mayor was throwing a party for Senator Grimes, he fell over dead, right on his face.”
“Why would I be interested in that, Dim?”
“First the whole room heard a voice...a thunderous voice....the walls shook,” Dim said.
“Just as his Swan song was sung, twenty black flies exited his open cake hole and stung Senator Grimes to death.”
Dim was right. I was interested. “You wanna know more, don't you?”
I stopped eating my rice, pushed my bowl forward. I stared at him a moment. “You know who I am,don't you?” I lit a cigarette.
“Of course I do,” He laughed, drank down the rest of his broth. “My boss sent me out here to find you.”
“You gonna tell me who that might be?” I blew smoke in his face.
Dim coughed, waved a hand. “Look...it ain't nobody you think it is. No human, anyway.”
“You really a human? A college ---”
“Yeah, yeah. Professor of Human studies. For real.” Dim smiled, all his teeth black and his gums had turned sick purple.
I sighed, stubbed out my cigarette in my bowl. “Well tell me who he is, will ya!”
“Naw....I'm just suppose to escort you around and make sure you clean this mess up. that's all.” Dim said.
“What's in it for me?”
He laughed, waved a hand. “You kill me, Chambers. Okay. Let's talk turkey.” He leaned in.
I leaned in, said, “Yes. Let's talk turkey.”
“It seems an old friend of yours soul is at stake. You two were an item not long ago. My boss holds the marker on her soul.”
“Ah. I see.” I stood. “And I'm the caretaker of this person. Is that it?”
“Hey...You care for this...for her..I feel it from your heartbeat. It's a special gift I have. Feeling people out, reading their emotions. Even feeling great joy..great pain.” Dim stood, he cut me off from going out the door.
“Maybe you should take the act to Barnum and Bailey Circus,” I told him.
“Hey,” Dim begged. “Don't be a smart ass...okay? This is something the boss cooked up. Yeah..you get the marker on the girl's soul if you do the job right. In the meantime...maybe you help us get who is doing this. Understand?”
I thought a minute. Shit. I was back in the game whether I liked it or not. Dim was smiling. He knew I accepted the offer before I said anything. I guess he did have the gift.
“C'mon,” Dim said. “Let's get out of these rags.”
Dim had taken me to twenty-third and Low where a storage place sat between two bars. He didn't use a key and I was sure the door was locked. He just turned the latch and we were inside a dank smelling brick building with hundreds of racks of clothing. Dim looked at me, laughed.
“You have that look of astonishment.,” He said. “Yet I feel you still don't trust me. Don't worry. I ain't gonna whack you.”
“I see your people are up on modern styles,” I told him.
“Sure,” Dim peeled off that patchwork shirt he was wearing. He replaced it with a checkered jacket, gray silk shirt, and a red bow tie. He kept the deer hunter cap.
I slipped into my usual jacket, dress shirt.
When we left the storage building. I looked back. The storage building was gone. It was just the brick building both bars shared. I should have known.
“What's next?” I asked Dim.
“I don't know,” He shrugged. “This is you're show, Mr. fancy pants.”
“Okay,” I said. I turned completely around, hailed a cab. A blue Ford Focus pulled up. The Taxi sign was barely attached to the car's roof. I looked over, saw Dim was muttering to himself. “Hey!” I yelled to him. “You gonna follow me, or what?”
He sighed. “Yeah, yeah.” Dim climbed in the backseat after I was in. The Taxi sped off.
A Latin man was driving, speaking Spanish about the weather. I yawned and nodded to him. Dim was not happy having to take a taxi.
“You know,” Dim said. “I could have just snapped my fingers and we'd end up on your home turf.”
“Call me old fashioned.”
“Like you don't take advantage of some powers your Protector gave you?”
“Nope,” I told Dim. “That's a ball game I don't play.”
“So what's the point of being a Demon's henchman?” Dim said, using a dismissive hand.
“I'm not a Demon's henchman.”
Dim laughed. “Oh yes you are. You might not know it, or you're in denial. But you certainly are a delivery boy for a Hades occupant.”
It just dawned on me that that old silly fool was right.
We arrived on my street corner shortly. I made Dim pay the driver. The man thanked us in Spanish, sped off. We stood on the street corner at One in the morning, just standing there. Dim grew impatient. He started whistling, walking in circles. Then he grunted loudly.
“What in hell are we doing here, Chambers?” he screamed.
“Waiting,” I told him. “Keep your voice down, you old shitbag. Or the bulls will be here.”
“So? They can't do nothin' to us. We're protected by supernatural beings.”
“How do you know one of them don't have a supernatural protector?” I lit a cigarette, blew smoke in his face.
Dim shrugged. “Point taken.”
Off in the distance we could here a voice calling out for newspapers to be sold. I threw my cigarette down, started for the corner of Laney and fourth. “Come on,” I yelled to Dim. He ran up behind me as we crossed a dead street.
“Newspaper boys in this day and time? What are we in the nineteen forties?”
“That's my contact,” I growled at him.
“Hey, I ain't knockin' it.”
We saw Little Jimmy hawking his newspapers. The twelve year old black boy turned every which way, calling it out. He saw me and a huge smile came across his face. He spit out the match that had been between his teeth. He put his hands around his waist. I stopped in front of him. Smiling sideways, I patted him on the shoulder.
Dim came up behind us. “Oh, brother!” Dim snarled. “You two gonna kiss or what?”
Little Jimmy's eyebrows narrowed. “Who is this cracker?”
“It's okay, Jimmy. He's with me. I need info.”
“I'll see if G'nal is available. You ain't the only one in his stable.” Jimmy said.
Dim went white. He stepped back a little. “Whoa....G'nal is....you and G'nal?”
“Yeah. What?” I was getting a little tired of Dim. He was sure as hell getting on my last nerve.
“Nothin'.” He put his hands up. “He's....pretty damn powerful....is all.”
“Stand over there,” I pointed at a sewer grate. “Stay out of the way.”
Before I knew it, I was surrounded by a cloud of black smoke and no one in the whole world mattered. G'nal stood before me. A tall shadowy figure with stabbing red eyes.
“You are back,” His voice boomed. “I was beginning to think you didn't need me.”
“It wasn't like that,” I looked away. I wondered if I would have to see Maggie. I wasn't sure if I was up for that. “I just needed...time away from things.”
“You need information about what?” There seemed to be a faint of hostility in G'nal's voice. Or maybe it was just my being paranoid. I guess at any given moment he could abandon me as I had abandoned him.
“The Mayor and senator Grimes.”
“Both deceased,” G'nal finished for me. “This is a mess. Why are you involved?”
“Someone made me an offer,” I said.
“The fool down there?”
“You should have refused,” G'nal said. “He's insignificant. He does not carry any weight in the underworld.”
“Yeah? I guess I should have known.” I sighed.
“But he could have caused you some problems. You can trust him as long as you give him what he wants.”
“He says his boss wants the culprit for the hits on the Mayor and Grimes. Why would someone kill them like that?”
G'nal chuckled. “They are apart of a group that control everything in the city. Four powerful people who have worked their way up in the black arts. One of them is a Police Chief. The other is a very rich man. The culprit, as you put it, has a distinct fragrance about them.”
I thought a minute. “Death?”
“Why can't Dim 's boss smell it?” I asked.
“He hasn't achieved the status of Reaper. I have.” G'nal said. “Humans can smell it.”
“Tell me who you smell, then.”
“I have no interest in this. Just follow the flies. You will find him. Before you ask, it all hinges on power...complete control of the city and a status in the underworld.”
The black smoke was gone.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. Dim snickered. “So where is your demon friend?”
“Already spoke to him. It's a distinct smell. You'll know it when you come across it. He also said to follow the flies.”
Dim took his hand from my shoulder. His face was drained of all color. “You mean those flies?” He pointed to cab driver who was walking toward us. The black flies were apart of him. His arm would break away, turn into a small sect of a swarm, then regroup. The cab driver was menacing enough with those two black eyes scowling, his presence taller by two heads than me and even three and a half heads taller than Dim.
I looked at Dim, he swallowed hard, grabbed me by my coat. “I'm afraid this is a little out of my league....powers and all, Chambers. I suggest we run. And fast.”
“No...” I whispered. “It can't hurt me.”
“Uh...You need to brush up on your demonology, friend,” Dim said nervously. “Your protector can't protect you from a Sicarius. A demon assassin. You asshole! You got a hit out on you!”
It was too late to run. The cab driver was right there. About thirty black flies swarmed around us, forming a huge black bubble. We heard a thunderous voice. The sidewalk shook, and Dim and I used that to our advantage for a split second. We fell hard on the pavement, bawled up in the fetal position. The flies buzzed around us but they hadn't bit either of us.
Which is what one fly does. It drills a small hole and the rest enter, rearranging your insides. Then they exit out of your gaping mouth, leaving a dead bloated body. I heard the damned things buzzing near my ears. I looked up, that smell was definitely death. They were ready to unleash a painful act on us when out of nowhere a small horned creature leaped on us, taking hold Dim by his coat with one claw and me by the collar of my shirt. The creature hopped and skipped away from the street corner in a flash.
I was dumbfounded.
Where we ended up was at Maggie's mansion. Specifically, the bungalow I had lived at until six months ago.
She was standing in the driveway, newspaper under her arm, a cup of coffee in her hand. Her hair was pulled back tight in a ponytail and her robe, unfastened, hung off her shoulders to reveal zebra pattern pajamas. Those big brown eyes were staring a hole in me.
The creature dropped us hard on the blacktop. It looked over at Maggie and spoke the same language as the the Sicarius. Dim rolled himself to a kneeling position. He opened his mouth and spoke to the creature.
It sounded like you were listening to a record backwards. Maybe my mother was right. All that Rock 'n' Roll I listened to was demonic, playing those records backwards might have been my language tutor. I should have payed attention.
I picked myself up, watched the creature throw himself into the air and into oblivion. Dim stood, dusted himself off.
“What were you two chatting about?” I asked him.
Dim looked puzzled. “You didn't understand...? Oh. You don't know Hellspeak. Maybe you ain't initiated yet.”
“The fuck are you talking about, old man.” I clenched my fist tight. I would have taken a swing at him, but I'm not much of a brawler. I'm more inclined to find the back door to a bar fight than break a chair over some one's head.
“Don't get excited.,” He patted me on the shoulder and smiled. “ I just asked him who was his master.”
“What did he say?” I shook him off, relaxed my fists.
Dim pointed to Maggie Collins. “He said he only had a mistress and she wanted him to save you from any danger. Good thing I was standing next to you.”
I stared at Maggie for a long time. She wanted to come over to me. She kept fidgeting with the paper, glancing over at me. Finally, Maggie turned and went inside. I looked for her husband's car, a gray Bentley. It wasn't in the driveway.
“Beat it, Dim,” I told him.
“Huh?” Dim took a few steps back.
“I said I'll catch up with you later, alright?!” I screamed at him, started for Maggie's house.
He did what he was told. Dim had a sour look on his face. He snapped his fingers and disappeared. I hesitated, my hand on the doorknob. What if Maggie didn't want to see me. What if she was done with it all. It fell on me like a ton of bricks. She had that Demon save me not just once, but twice. The last time it tackled me on a street corner. I thought for sure she'd had sent that thing to kill me. That's what she was trying to tell me the last time I saw her.
Maggie Collins still loved me.
I turned the doorknob, the front door slowly opened. There Maggie was, standing in the middle of the foyer, completely naked, her long chestnut hair was down past her shoulders, her arms open wide.
“Come here,” Maggie commanded.
I did as she said, practically turning a cartwheel.
Later in the night we lay on a sheet on the floor of the foyer eating Chinese takeout. She was laying on me, her head on my naked chest, finishing off the last of the sweet and sour chicken. I stroked her hair. I could feel the warmth and rhythm of her heartbeats.
“I missed you,” Maggie whispered.
I sighed. “I missed you, too.”
She sat the wax box of Chinese down. She roughly turned around and forced me on my back. She kissed me softly on my bottom lip, then moved up to include both lips. It was warm and pure. I kissed her back, pulling her closer to me. Clinging....securing her body with both hands on her smooth back.
Maggie removed my hands, eased herself off and lay snug against me. She fumbled for my pack of cigarettes, took one. She found my lighter and lit it. When she exhaled, the stream of smoke looked. I watched it gently slide above us in the air, then dissipate.
“I wish you had never left,” Maggie said.
“It was a fool thing to do. I was confused. Tired. Very tired.”
“Yeah. I was confused a little. But I knew what I wanted.”
“What was that?” Maggie placed the cigarette between my lips. I took a drag.
“You,” She said. “I wanted you. I still do.”
“What about Collins? A very rich and powerful man....and still your husband.”
“I don't care about him,” I could taste the bitterness from those words she spoke. He leaves me all alone to hunt these ridiculous artifacts that supposedly has supernatural powers. He doesn't care about me. He only cares about power.”
“He's gone again?” I asked. She gave me a look. She started to say something smart ass. I cut her off. “It's to do with what I'm working on.”
“Oh. He's been gone now....four months.” Maggie said.
Collins might not have been involved in these hits. I asked Maggie. She laughed, shook her head.
“No. he created the group to watch over this city. The collection?” She pointed to a room down the hall. “That is to help protect the group. You see, he has all the power in this tiny city. His sights.....they are set on controlling not just this world, too. He wants the afterlife in his grips as well.”
“What's going in that building?”
“You have to ask Police Chief Hemlock. It belongs to him, he just uses the Collins construction company to build it.”
I sat up. She grabbed my arm. I smiled at Maggie. “I'm not going anywhere.” I told her. That worried look gave way to relief. “Not til morning, Maggie. Maggie.....Maggie? Will Collins give you up?”
Maggie bit her lower lip. She started to speak, then stopped. She closed her eyes, tears trickled down her flushed cheeks. She reopened her eyes and nodded. “I have a way out.”
“Will he give you up?” I asked again.
“He will have too.” Maggie said with conviction.
I put my arms around her. She kissed me. I gently laid her down beside me. Maggie crawled up against me.
“What kind of life do you imagine for us?” I asked.
She laughed. “I haven't gotten that far yet.”
“Can you see yourself as a mother?”
Maggie sat up, thought a second. She turned quickly to me. “I never wanted any of this. I thought I cared about money. Power used to excite me. I think it clouded my judgement. What I always dreamed of, since I was a little girl, was old fashioned. My mother was a lawyer. She had three husbands, none were my birth father. You damn right I can see myself as a mother. I tried hard for years, Pete. First by him,” Maggie pointed at a framed photo of Collins shaking hands with President Reagan. “Then it was with any man that would have me. That just bored the shit out of me. So....I gave up. Childless and unhappy with anything and everything at my fingertips. What a life.”
Yeah, I thought. What a life.
Then I jolted upright. Maggie sprung up, too. “What? What is it, Pete?”
“Do you still have the Spellcaster?” I asked.
“Yeah. What are you thinking? I'm not sure you should screw with that----”
“I need you to look something up for me,” I stood, put on my pants. I walked over to the couch and retrieved my shirt and jacket. She was giving me that look, the one that says you're gonna fuck this up.
I looked at her, threw my hands in the air. “What?”
“Listen to me. When someone....someone uses those spells, they can never stop.” Maggie said. She crossed the room, sat on the couch. “I'm telling you. You'll start, get used to making everything easy. One day you will have a spell go wrong---”
“Whoa--” I tried to get a word in, but Maggie wasn't having it.
“And that dark mourning of the soul will end it all!” She screamed at me.
I eased myself on the couch beside her. She was getting hysterical. I needed to say or do what I could to get her calmed down and reverse that spell.
“Just ...look, Maggie. Trust me. I know I have always said I wont use anything supernatural to get an edge....unless,” I wagged a finger. “Unless I have to. If this is who I think is using this Sicarous to kill people....they might use it again to kill me.”
I could see in her eyes a light switch was turned on. She started to well up. Maggie grabbed my hands, took them into hers. “Okay,” She said. “I'll do it. Give me a few hours to find the spell you want. Just promise me this will be the last time you use it.”
I said what I needed to say. I agreed, knowing I could never keep that promise.
Dim was antsy. He paced in circles around me in the empty building Maggie's husband was constructing. The construction workers had already went home and the solitude was driving Dim crazy. In turn, he was driving me up the wall.
“What the fuck are we waiting here for again?” He growled.
I grabbed him by the elbow, stopped him in his tracks. “Cut it out,” I yelled at him. “Stay still. You're worse than a four year old casing the cupboard for cookies.”
“What are we doin' here?!” Dim's voice echoed through out the three story brick and mortar.
There was movement in the dark room outlined by metal frames. I shushed Dim, listened some more. There were voices. More like whispers. But it was a language I didn't recognize. Then I remembered Dim had said it was Hellspeak. A language used by demons and others from hell.
I looked to my right and saw a pair of eyes glowing red. I looked to my left. There were at least ten more pairs of red eyes. I felt a hand brush me. I jumped, pushed Dim away from me. He didn't notice. He was busy sniffing the putrid air. A wry grin came upon his face.
Dim started to laugh. “I thought so,” He said.
“What are they?” My voice broke. A nervous hypertension took control of my body.
“Would you believe it?” Dim waved a hand at hundreds of red eyes that had surrounded us. “Souls,” He giggled and shook his head. “Chambers, they ain't nothin' but souls. Somebody is storing souls here!”
I gasped, felt my heart leap into my throat. Something about the dead being active with the living scares the shit out of me.
I smelled death. I heard buzzing at my ears. Dim and I locked eyes. Without saying a word, we both fell to the linoleum floor of the unfinished building and rolled left. We rolled right into a leg in blue trousers. I looked up and saw Hemlock standing in the doorway of the building. The short fat man was in an uptown blue suit cut especially for him. He was grinning at me, a cigar hanging from the corner of his mouth.
“How nice, Chambers,” Hemlock said. “You've found friend to play war with.”
I picked myself up slowly. The stench of death was staggering. I felt slightly dizzy. I propped myself up on a wall. It was getting harder to see Hemlock, or what was in front of me. My eyes started to water.
Dim offered me handkerchief and I graciously accepted. “You really should change your perfume, Hemlock,” I told him. “It's a bit overwhelming.”
“The company I keep seems to like it,” He laughed, blew cigar smoke in my direction. The Sicarious appeared beside him. All of the tiny black flies seemed to be stuck slow motion, just swarming in the same area.
“You look like you have big plans,” I said, fumbling for the piece of paper Maggie had written the spell on.
'You like my new house?” Hemlock extended a hand to show his pride and joy. “It's taken lots of hard work.”
“You planning on becoming the new Lucifer, I take it.”
“No!” hemlock spat at me. “The all-powerful Aldiss Hemlock, Chambers!” His face was red as tomato. He actually reminded me of Yosemite Sam sputtering all over the place. “It is true i'm aiming for a new Hell. Yeah. But it's going to be my 'Hell', Chambers.”
“Naw,” I shook my head. “You aren't a little crazy. You're fucking mega-crazy!”
“Hand it over,Chambers,” Hemlock insisted. He stepped forward. The Sicarious followed, the flies broke away slightly, awaiting Hemlock's command.
“Hand what over?”
'The cylinder. What the fuck do you think I mean?” His little fat feet did that dance again and I almost couldn't contain myself.
“You want G'nal.” I said. “You really think you can micro-manage Hell? Keep a demon as a subservient shift manager? I hate to break it to you, Hemlock. I don't think Hell is ready for the corporate world.”
“It's okay, Chambers. Don't hand it over. I thought maybe I could talk you into taking a job for me gathering souls---”
“You thought wrong,” I cut him off.
“We might as well go with the first plan and take it.” He finished. He used Hellspeak to command the Sicarious. The demon came towards me. The tiny flies rose and formed their own winged Armada. Three groups were poised to burrow into my body and turn me into a bloated corpse.
I took the paper from my pocket and read aloud the spell. It wasn't my voice that came from my lips. It was Maggie's voice that was so loud, the newly installed windows in the building shook. What language my ears recognized was Hellspeak.
A bright light appeared about ten feet from me. Then a barrel slowly emerged onto the scene. I could smell the gasoline. It was strong, overtaking the smell of death coming from Hemlock's body. The little group of flies stopped in front of me, hovering. They turned quickly toward the spiraling light. In an instant, the flies flew off to meet the light. Just for a moment, they regrouped as the siloutte of the Sicarious before diving into the barrel of gasoline. Immediately the barrel caught afire, rose to the ceiling and burned bright.
Then it was gone. The fire. The barrel. The Sicarious. The swarm of flies.
Hemlock was left standing before Dim and I. Dim brushed past me, stopped in front of Hemlock, who was by now a blubbering fool on his knees groveling.
Dim handed me a gold locket on a golden chain. “Here, Chambers,” He said. I took it from him gingerly. “I'll handle this from here on.” A low growl from his lips turned into a pitch perfect screech as he leaped on Hemlock in one bound.
Dim tore into Hemlock's face with those awful black teeth, tearing flesh from his left cheek. Hemlock's screams echoed loudly in that empty building.
I walked past the poor lost souls that Hemlock had been collecting. Those sad, red eyes were burned into my memories forever.
Maggie took me into her arms, enveloping me. She whispered that she loved me. She sat me on the couch in her living room. She kissed me, touched my chin with her hand.
“I'll fix you a drink.” Maggie said.
I watched her walk to the bar. I took the peculiar gold locket from my pocked. “Hey, look at this---”
Collins appeared behind Maggie, holding a straight razor in his hand. The tall gray haired man was dressed in all white. Tie, shirt, jacket, and shoes. He grabbed his wife by her hair, pulled her toward him. He dragged the razor across the jugular of her throat. Blood spurted all over him, making his white suit into a Jackson Pollock painting.
“No!” I screamed, rushing him.
His eyes flashed red. Collins laughed. Before I could reach him, his body broke into particles, dispersed into thin air.
I fell to my knees, clutching Maggie's lifeless body to me. I wept. Screamed, cursed.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up and saw Maggie standing over me.
“I told you,” She said. “I told you I would find a way for us to be together forever.”