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St. Agnes' Eve

ST. AGNESEVE

A novel by Malachi Stone

Published by Malachi Stone for Shakespir

 

 

 

© 2012 by Malachi Stone

 

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission of the author. All the characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

 

 

For Maria, my peerless bride.

 

 

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

 

Chapter One – Snuff Film Noir

Chapter Two – Entertained by the Dead

Chapter Three – Big Artie

Chapter Four – Dagger of the Mind

Chapter Five – La Belle Dame Sans Souci

Chapter Six – Civil Blood

Chapter Seven – What the Cleaning Woman Saw

Chapter Eight – Bitch Lips

Chapter Nine – The Taste of Sandra

Chapter Ten – Mizzourah Hoodoo

Chapter Eleven – Skank’s Night Out

Chapter Twelve – Casual Friday

Chapter Thirteen – Urine the Money

Chapter Fourteen – Showboy

Chapter Fifteen – The Big O

Chapter Sixteen – The Flip Side of Atlantis

Chapter Seventeen – Slouching Toward Belleville

Chapter Eighteen – Ricky Sucks The Big One

Chapter Nineteen – Pantsing in the Moonlight

Chapter Twenty – I Found My Thrill on Vatican Hill

Chapter Twenty-One – All We Have to Sell

Chapter Twenty-Two – Stark Staring Mad

Chapter Twenty-Three – The Wet Spot

Chapter Twenty-Four – The Sound of One Hand Slapping

Chapter Twenty-Five – The Kokker Maneuver

Chapter Twenty-Six – Lupercalifragilisticexpialidoshus

Chapter Twenty-Seven – Mineral Oil with Macanudo

Chapter Twenty-Eight – Desecration Day

Chapter Twenty-Nine – The Lilith Sabbat

About the Author

Connect With Me Online

 

 

 

“St Agnes! Ah, it is St Agnes’ Eve –

Yet men will murder upon holy days.”

 

John Keats, The Eve of St. Agnes

 

 

 

Chapter One – Snuff Film Noir

 

I’ll do anything for money. Maybe it’s the wife and four kids, or the two mistresses. But mostly it’s the drugs.

Doctor Kirk Kokker used to be a pretty good chiropractor, to give the devil his due. That was more or less what I’d told the legions of personal injury clients I’d steered his way over the past twenty years for kickbacks and Kokker’s perjured testimony. I drove west on Route 40 out of the Metro East and toward Town and Country to pay the doctor a house call. With every passing mile, the realization that I would never be able to afford to live in Kokker’s neighborhood grew. We’d both sold our souls for money, but Kokker had gotten a better deal. The sin of envy was on me like a plague of scabs.

Due west of Saint Louis, at the end of the rainbow, lies Town and Country, one of the most exclusive and moneyed suburbs in the greater metropolitan area, for people who care about such things. Stuck in the late afternoon stop-and-go traffic watching the sun go down, I tried convincing myself I wasn’t one of them. The winding columns of brake lights winked on and off like lanterns lighting weary pilgrims’ way to some hellish shrine.

My car’s odometer was working on its repeat hundred thousand, well into its fifth circumnavigation of the globe. Even before I parked it on Kokker’s white flagstone courtyard, I knew it would drip oil. The engine smoked from under the hood like a barbecue grill. Head gaskets shot, or maybe the main seal on the engine, but luckily for me it still ran. My insurance carrier called it a pleasure car. My money went for other pleasures.

The house, I was relieved to discover, proved well worth the drive. It was an imposing Tudor with garden and grounds immaculately manicured, right down to the cuticles on the fingers and toes of the nude statuary. I searched my memory for a comparison. Finally I flashed on it: the Playboy Mansion West, lifted from the slick pages of the magazine and dropped on suburban Missouri like Dorothy’s house on Oz, only with no witch to squash under it. A bronze female nude gazed down at me from the circular fountain like an unsmiling centerfold.

“Attorney Ricky Galeer to see Dr. Kokker,” I told the poker-faced black housekeeper who answered the door and beckoned me into the foyer.

Doctor Kokker himself sprang out of nowhere, beaming and smiling. For as long as I’d known him, Kokker had been completely bald. When we first met, he’d reminded me of a young Peter Lorre, in that movie where he’s a mad doctor reattaching lopped-off hands. Janis called Kokker “Hairless Krishna” behind his back. Remarks like that probably gave her something to talk about in confession.

Half in earnest and half in jest, I’d offered to let paralegal Janis Mezzanotte come along and take notes or carry my briefcase after my esteemed senior partner and employer Mark Kane had volunteered me for today’s house call. She’d looked at me like I was nuts. I knew she couldn’t stand Kokker. Mark Kane picked up on it, too.

“Kirk’s a nice guy,” he’d said to her. I waited for him to add that Kirk was a pretty good chiropractor. Mark Kane calling somebody a nice guy was all it took to set off an early warning signal in anybody who knew him as well as I did. And after twenty years I barely knew him at all. Of course, like everybody else I knew his TV ads from pro wrestling, Jerry Springer, and Saturday night line dancing programs—In Pain? Call Kane! Dial 1-800-OMYBACK or visit us online at kaneinyourcorner.com.

But Janis had begged off—something about skip-tracing defendants. She logged back onto her computer and went to work. Janis Mezzanotte was a witch at the computer, if you can call somebody a witch who dressed like a nun in Vatican Two street clothes and probably went to Mass every morning before the office. And yet Janis could work black magic on a computer. A mouse beneath her long fingers was like a planchette on a Ouija board.

Only two items personalized Janis’s workstation: an Oscar-sized statue of what looked like a stylized Black Madonna and a framed studio portrait of her eighteen-year-old daughter, Madeleine, a willowy raven-haired wild thing, the image of her mother.

“Good afternoon and welcome!” Kokker’s chiropractor handshake, a legacy from his years of literally wringing the money out of his patients, captured my right in both of his and held it there. His very name spoken aloud made a sound like dislocation of the spine. I couldn’t utter his name without visualizing him with a reflex hammer playing a marimba rhythm on somebody’s backbone.

One thing I’d learned over twenty years of practice was how distressingly unprofitable a house call could be for a lawyer. Hospital calls were the same way. Something about house and hospital calls always seemed a jinx to me, in a hundred different ways. Either the client is a pain in the ass, or crazy, or turns out to have oversold the injury to us, or he ends up jumping to one of our myriad competitors, or there’s no insurance, or there is insurance but the adjuster cashes out before our lien letter hits the mail slot. Maybe there was some cosmic law against visiting the sick or injured with money on your mind. Mark Kane would blame me regardless of what went wrong, and he was beginning to have me agreeing with him, even though I needed the next paycheck like the next breath of air.

“You have a beautiful home, Dr. Kokker.” I felt like a lawyer in a soap opera. He slipped his handclasp from mine almost regretfully, then beckoned me into what looked like old Hollywood’s version of a baronial hall. Medieval coats of arms festooned the broad beams spanning the cathedral ceiling. The room practically swallowed up an oak banquet table big enough to seat the Saint Louis Rams comfortably even without the drop leaf.

The heraldic designs were there merely for decoration. Kokker’s mother had bankrolled his chiropractic education running a saloon that took in most of its money on the second floor. By the time Tricky Dick was starting his first term, she had branched out into a string of protected massage parlors all over the Metro East.

“I thought we might be more comfortable in cozier surroundings,” Kokker said. “Let me show you to my rathskeller.” I followed his Jack Benny sashay. Not a word yet about why the house call. Maybe the housekeeper had big ears.

“Hephzibah’s been with us for years,” Kokker volunteered, as though he had read my mind. “She’s from Haiti originally, you know. Ah, here we are.” We stood at the head of a wide, red-carpeted stairway descending into darkness. Kokker bounded down the stairs two at a time without flipping on any light. I followed, hoping his homeowner’s policy was paid up in case I missed a step.

“Sandra and I call this our ‘rumpus room,’” Kokker said. We had reached what looked like a dungeon door. He opened it, then clapped his hands. Indirect lighting came alive in the expansive subterranean level of the home.

Kokker’s rumpus room was bigger than my whole house and a hell of a lot nicer. An enormous carpeted crater of a conversation pit formed the room’s vortex. Plush rouge velvet sectionals curved around its circumference like the ruby iris of a predatory eye. A huge, natural gas open hearth ignited at its center. A plasma TV, about the width and breadth of a highway billboard, loomed above the pit in seeming levitation. I counted six semi-private alcoves, each furnished with its own Hef-sized round waterbed made up with a matching red silk cover embroidered with black designs that I couldn’t make out in the soft light. One thing was obvious: they were designed for making out. The Kokkers had selected a Count Dracula color scheme for their rumpus room. As far as the wandering eye could see, whatever wasn’t red was black.

Kokker motioned for me to sit next to him on one of the sectionals.

“Mark tells me you had some urgent questions needing answers, Doctor,” I began. It was always Mark outside the office. But Kokker waved the statement away. Too soon to discuss business. Instead, he reached for a ponderous photo album lying on the crystal coffee table two feet away from my shins. Then he sat so close our thighs almost touched. It was then I noticed something else on the coffee table: a Waterford candy bowl three-quarters filled with packaged rubbers of all sizes, textures, and flavors, every color of the rainbow.

“You know, I felt rather self-castigatory when I realized that in all the years of our professional acquaintance, Ricky, I have shamefully neglected to invite you and your lovely wife—Diane, isn’t it?—as evening guests in our home. What an unpardonable oversight! I hope you’ll permit me to rectify my insensitivity in that regard by allowing me the pleasure of extending a heartfelt dinner invitation to both of you. How does the twentieth sound, around . . . eightish?”

Why did every conversation with Kokker leave me feeling that my job hung in the balance? Maybe because it did. To Mark Kane, P.C., the Kokker connection represented a patient-referral jackpot, his chain of quack clinics a Xerox machine of lucrative and fraudulent personal injury insurance settlements.

“I’ll see whether I can clear that date with Diane,” I said, trying like hell to sound sincere, secretly relieved that nobody had me on a voice-stress analyzer. “She’s very busy these days with her new antique business.”

“Now, there’s something I never encountered before. New antiques.” Kokker had made a funny. I obliged him by laughing.

“No, really,” he went on. “Sandra is fascinated by antiques of all kinds. After all, she married me, didn’t she?” Another obligatory laugh. “To all appearances a confirmed bachelor at my age back then, I’m sure everyone had given me up for gay.”

I stopped laughing.

“Did Mark happen to mention to you I’m quite the amateur shutterbug?” Kokker said. I raised my eyebrows and smiled, trying to summon up some interest. “Oh, yes. I deplore digital—I can’t tell a pixel from a jpeg to save my soul. Traditional photography is still the best. I have my own professionally equipped darkroom and develop all my own pictures right here at home. Would you care to view some of my work?”

I thought I’d rather hear what was so damned important for me to be making a house call but nodded eagerly. Kokker and I would be just like a couple of schoolgirls leafing through our class yearbook. He rested the huge album—which seemed about the size of a Gutenberg Bible—on our laps and threw open its red calfskin cover with a flourish. I heard rapids of blood rushing in my ears.

“All pretense and condescension generally vanish whenever one of our new guests feasts his or her eyes on this one,” Kokker said with what sounded like malicious pride. I was staring at a full-page, portrait-quality head shot of Sandra performing fellatio. It was an icebreaker, all right. Kokker said, “Rather arrests the viewer’s attention, wouldn’t you say so, Ricky?”

I made a conscious effort to close the gaping hole my mouth had become. What would Dr. Freud have made of that?

Sandra and I had never been formally introduced. She’d been working as Kokker’s chiropractic assistant back when he’d married her at nineteen. That would put her at about thirty-eight now. For the last five of those years I’d been fucking her.

I blamed it on her necklace. Waiting to start a deposition at Kokker’s main clinic, I saw her standing behind the bulletproof glass of the receptionist’s station. She wore a heavy black onyx pendant in the shape of an infinity symbol. How it dangled from its gold chain, drawing the wayward eye toward the furrow between her augmented breasts. Sandra leaned forward to take a call. The pendant flipped over, revealing the letters CS on the back, traced in tiny rubies. Or maybe they were garnets. I hadn’t brought along my jewelsmith’s loupe, but it wasn’t the kind of pendant you could pick up in the jewelry department at Wal-Mart.

I kept asking her what the letters meant. Chiropractic Sandra? Captivating Sandra? Cunning Sandra? Making an ass out of myself in front of the court reporter and the opposing attorneys. Finally, she smirked, little-girl cutesy-poo. “No, no, and no,” was all she said, the first words she had ever spoken to me, leaving the rest of it to my imagination. I should have left well enough alone.

Kokker had said something I’d missed. I said, “Sorry?”

“I asked whether you’ve finished studying that page.”

I nodded mutely.

He flipped to the next page. Sandra again in the foreground, totally nude outside a St. Louis-area supermarket, pushing a shopping cart. Whatever Kokker had been going for, he’d achieved a kind of heartland Helmut Newton style.

“Interesting logistical note, Ricky: Sandra wore a trench coat and nothing else, then whipped it off at an opportune moment in the loading zone while yours truly snapped the picture from behind the wheel.” Kokker beamed, watching my expression.

“Looks like it was cold out that night,” was all I could come up with.

“Have you ever given any consideration to photographing Diane nude, Ricky?”

I had clapped cuckold’s horns on Kokker’s chrome dome more times than I could remember, and yet the idea of the two of us comparing nudie pics of our wives pissed me off.

“Not a chance, Doctor. Diane is so busy with our four kids, not to mention her new business, that we don’t have too much time for games, adult or otherwise.”

Kokker looked at me like I’d told him I was dying of cancer. “Oh, but you must make time, Ricky. It’s critically important that the two of you set aside time for adult play. Variety, fantasy, unusual practices, unfamiliar partners—these are the elements that make up a successful marriage.”

I felt funny talking marriage, what with the album of dirty pictures weighing down on my lap.

“Perhaps you prefer video images, Ricky? High definition? Surround sound?” Barely raising his voice, and seemingly apropos of nothing, he said, “Naked.”

The TV spontaneously turned itself on. The rathskeller lights came down to an ocher gloom, the color of a dying hearth. We caught the closing credits of the Flintstones, the happy little chorus really selling it, singing of a gay old time. Kokker half-turned to me, chortling, “Do you think Fred will ever get that infernal cat to stay out for the night, Ricky?” He kept smiling at me for an uncomfortable interval, waiting for an answer. I struggled for one.

“I guess not,” I said. The brilliant legal mind at work.

“Cats are like women, Ricky.” Kokker continued to stare at me. I nodded sagely. “For instance, if you bring a stray cat—or a stray woman—into your house, why before you can say Jack Robinson she insinuates herself into the midst of things and becomes part of the family. Then when the time comes to put her out, you find it’s well nigh impossible to do so. Don’t you agree?”

“That a cat is like a woman, or that it’s hard to put her out of the house?”

“A careful and judicious answer, Ricky. I should have expected no less,” Kokker said. “You know, cats were killers before they were ever pets, and they’ve been pets since ancient Egypt. There’s something wild in every cat—wild and untamable, older than history, lurking there all along, hidden, awaiting its chance. Did you know, the literal meaning of the word ‘occult’ is hidden? From time immemorial, cats have always belonged to the dark side.”

“I like dogs myself.”

“Stout fellow.” Turning back to face the massive TV, Kokker enunciated, “Hard.” He must have had the whole setup voice-recog programmed. Twin chrome cylinders rose silently out of the floor on either side of him. One held a VCR server, the other a full rack of tapes. “I’ve been meaning to convert everything over to DVD, but where does one find the time or energy?” he sighed. Selecting the first tape from the rack, he inserted it into the server.

My true specialty was chasing personal injury cases for Mark Kane all over hell’s half acre—a euphemism for the Metro East. I could always be counted on to settle any and every case for Mark Kane, no matter how many bugs were in them, and all the cases in Mark Kane’s office had bugs in them. Usually the same bugs. As a matter of fact, at the moment I was staring at the back of the beetle-bald head of one frequently encountered bug. I needed eighty thousand dollars to cover the major credit cards alone. I was two months behind on all four mortgages. Sitting beside Kokker in his weirdo-engineered rec room, I pondered life’s injustices. Hell, yes, I wanted high definition and surround sound. I wanted the quiet life, and I wanted Sandra and Janis in a three-way. I wanted all the crank I could snort or slam and more money than I could ever spend.

Sandra Pulls the Train began with a gimmick: a silent-movie steam locomotive heads down the track straight for the audience. Animated titles spring from the iron horse’s cowcatcher. Twinky digital rendition of Casey Jones. Dissolve to Sandra in action.

Kokker stood and addressed me, blocking the screen. “Ricky, as you might have suspected, I didn’t bring you all the way out here merely to show you adult videos. What I want to know is, do I have enough?”

The on-screen scene had shifted. Men and women of all ages crowded around watching Sandra coupling with a powerfully built black man. From the looks of things onscreen, the man’s prepotent equipment threatened Sandra with an imminent size-related injury.

“For a divorce,” Kokker added. “Do you think I have enough grounds for one?”

“Who took these videos, Doctor?” I asked

“I did, of course. Why do you ask?”

“Because the law says you can’t connive to procure your own wife’s adultery and then use it as grounds to divorce her.”

“That’s ridiculous.” Kokker was indignant. “Why on earth should it matter?”

Rather than justify it, I explained, “The point is, it’s easy to obtain a dissolution of marriage these days, maybe even too easy. The trick for a man in your financial position is hanging onto your assets. Did you have her sign a prenup?” Kokker’s dismal change of expression told me he hadn’t.

Sandra’s pink tongue in extreme close-up now, clear enough to show her taste buds. Kokker, his back to the screen, moved a half-step stage left. Like an actor hitting his mark, he precisely superimposed his body between me and the central action onscreen. Kokker’s positioning was perfect; Sandra’s mouth seemed about to engulf the shining crown of his head.

Try as I might, I couldn’t crane my neck far enough around Kokker to see what followed. Kokker kept up his defensive moves, strutting around, posing more and more questions as he did. Won’t Sandra’s video adultery deny her a property settlement? No. Would it help if she signed a prenup now? No, that horse is already out of the barn. What about the fact that the holdings—the string of chiropractic clinics, the shopping malls, the gaming boats—are all closely held corporations? No, none of it would protect him from a potentially ruinous divorce settlement.

Then he asked me one that gave me pause. “What if one spouse knew the other had some connection to a murder?” Not one of your most frequently asked questions in my area of practice.

“Go on,” I said.

The onscreen image of Sandra seemed to flash me the same little-girl, cutesy-poo expression I’d seen that day in the chiropractic office. As she did so, I heard Kokker whine on the audio track, “Don’t look at the camera.”

Kokker stepped aside at last, revealing Sandra conjoined with the others. Of one flesh, as the Apostle says, although I didn’t think Kokker wanted to hear my sermon right then. Watching the tape, it was hard not to visualize one huge, fleshy snowball of humanity—red and yellow, black and white; painted and unpainted faces, fingernails, and toenails; heads, legs, pits, and pubes, shaven and unshaven; big and small, pierced, clipped, or nature’s own; probing fingers and prying eyes—rolling downhill, gaining momentum, all the while grabbing up others in the irresistible gravity of its hurtling, hell-bent juggernaut.

That world had already claimed me as its own. I resolved then and there never to allow any of it to touch my family. And yet, I was drawn in like a lost soul by the snare of something akin to familiar curiosity as I witnessed Sandra re-applying her lip-gloss. Kokker must have sensed me getting excited. He stared down at me with inseam-measuring eyes. The moment for any more talk of murder had passed, I thought. I was wrong.

Leaving the tape running, Kokker sat down next to me again, this time on the side opposite the TV. Now I had a choice: make eye contact with him or watch his wife take on half the three-one-four area code. I decided to look at him. After all, he was the client.

“Do you know what a snuff film is, Ricky?” he asked, his voice lowered to conspiratorial level here alone together in his rathskeller with the door barred.

“I have a fairly good idea.” I’d seen part of a television documentary.

“Do you?” Kokker replied. “Then perhaps you’re just the man to advise me. Confidentially, of course. Nothing we say here leaves this room. Are we on the same page in that regard?” I nodded. Attorney-client privilege and the rule of confidentiality sealed my lips like the Angel of Death from a professional standpoint, and Kokker knew it. That didn’t mean I was necessarily eager to hear what followed.

“What if one spouse came into possession of a snuff film? Quite by accident, mind you, but the pesky thing falling into the wrong hands could possibly lead the authorities to the perpetrator of an unsolved murder or two. And then the other spouse finds out about the snuff film. What then?”

“I’d need more facts,” I said, basically stalling. “What use does the finding-out spouse intend to make of the information? In other words, are you asking me about interspousal privilege?”

“Interspousal privilege,” Kokker said, seeming to relish some delicate irony in the words. “Just for fun, let’s pretend that I am. Can the finding-out spouse tell the police on the other, given the scenario I’ve described?”

I switched my gaze while I considered the question. In close-up, Sandra obligingly accommodated enough men to field a starting squad—and I’m talking football here, not basketball. “When did she first acquire the information? We are talking about a she, aren’t we?” I ventured.

“We are indeed. Let us assume, for the sake of our little game, that Hypothetical Hubby becomes aware, after the fact, mind you, that a crime has been committed—let’s say murder, to keep it interesting.”

“All right.”

“And let us further assume that Hypothetical Hubby knows the identity of the killer, having recognized the killer from watching the snuff film. For whatever reason, Hypothetical Hubby keeps mum and doesn’t tell the police, not even anonymously. Ergo, the killer roams free to commit further atrocities. Assuming all this happens before the wedding bells chime, is there any way Hypothetical Wifey can turn around after the honeymoon and testify against Hypothetical Hubby about it?”

Video Sandra was taking on the bench warmers now. My wariness had grown while Kokker had delivered his speech. He’d reminded me of a wily law professor, fond of the Socratic method, setting up some elaborate trick of logic where resort to legal syllogism threatened to lead me down a dark alley to a dead end devoid of common sense and justice.

“The answer is yes,” I said at last. Kokker turned pale before I could quickly add, “But what you’ve described—accessory after the fact—is not a crime in the state of Illinois.” I paused. “We are talking about something that happened in Illinois, aren’t we?” Why had I so easily assumed a snuff film would have originated in the Metro East? One always has to be so careful making assumptions about jurisdiction, practicing law so close to the line. The state line, that is.

“Has that been the law for some time?” Kokker inquired.

“Since before I went to law school.”

“And when did you happen to matriculate, if I may be so bold to inquire?”

“Over twenty years ago,” I said.

Kokker seemed relieved until I went on. “Now, there is a statute on the books making it a crime in the state of Illinois to aid or conceal a fugitive. It would constitute a crime if Hypothetical Hubby did something affirmative—for instance, performed some act that aided the killer to escape, hid him away, or furnished false information to the police.”

This last seemed to trouble Kokker. “What if Hypothetical Hubby removed some insignificant token from the crime scene, something that didn’t seem that all-fired important at the time? Let’s say merely as a sort of trophy or souvenir, but as time wore on and the killer was never caught, something that might even today prove crucial in solving the murder? What then?”

“Then I think Hubby definitely has something to worry about,” I said. “Hypothetically.”

In the periphery of my vision Kokker’s fingers drummed away on the crushed velvet as soundlessly as the flutter of moth wings, oblivious to the fact that Sandra had changed partners yet again. The camera scanned a restive line of bikers and accountants, millwrights and playwrights, ding-dongs and ho-hos. Like Studio 54 rejects of a bygone age, flat-footed on the wrong side of the velvet rope, they moved forward one by one until each took his turn. A line long enough to turn away customers at the multiplex. It looked like men’s night at the naked amusement park.

“I love the logic of the law,” Kokker said at last. “I find its clarity stimulating. And you may rest assured, Mark Kane’s firm will be the one I’ll always call upon if I need any additional legal advice and counsel regarding these concerns you and I have discussed.”

As a salaried non-equity partner, I, for one, was grateful as hell, but I responded, “Thank you, Doctor. I’m sure Mark will appreciate your kind words.”

“By the way,” Kokker said, “I want there to be no room for misunderstanding between us, Ricky. All photographs, all videotapes in this house are my own personal property. They are not to leave these four walls without my express authorization. Their content is sacrosanct, intended by me to remain absolutely, inviolably secret, confidential and privileged. Understood?”

I nodded, but he still seemed unsure. “As my attorney you will doubtless appreciate and honor my expectations in that regard. Agreed?”

“Relax, Doctor.”

“I am relaxed,” he said. “Unfortunately, some of my video subjects aren’t exactly the laconic type. As you might suspect, many of those I’ve captured on videotape over the years are quite happily married—like you and Diane—and some enjoy positions of the highest regard and trust in their communities. It should prove extremely embarrassing to some very well placed and influential parties should any of these chronicles become public. Hence my request, which I harbor no doubt that you, as my attorney and valued friend, will honor.”

“Your secrets are safe with me, Doctor.”

“Are you speaking now as my attorney, or as my friend?”

Now it was my turn to drum on the crushed velvet. “Both,” I choked, throat dry as parchment.

Kokker patted my hand and stilled my busy fingers. “Good,” he whispered. I told myself it was all part of the job and took another peek at Sandra taking on all comers. Noting my interest, Kokker commented, “Take it from me, Ricky, Sandra is a kinetic masterpiece in bed, a sexual acrobat.”

I panicked. Did he know about us?

“You and your lovely wife Diane must come join us for an evening’s frolic.”

“Frolic and detour,” I said. A legal term. It didn’t mean anything in context; I just felt like saying it for a goof. There was no way I was going to involve Diane in any of this, I told myself. The funny part was, I actually meant it at the time. But Kokker wasn’t finished.

“Diane is welcome to come and observe merely as a spectator at first. Let her stand dockside and wave if she’s shy about boarding the Love Boat right away. I should advise you, however, that many of those who began with us as landlubbers now number among our most seasoned shipmates. There’s sure to be an avid waiting list to book passage on Diane’s maiden voyage once she decides it’s time she got her sea legs.”

My inner child traced an imaginary bull’s eye around Kokker’s right orbit. Call it a double standard, but Diane’s name would never grace the labels on any of Kokker’s video “chronicles” if I had anything to say about it. And after fourteen years of marriage, I thought I did.

“And I take it you’re an able-bodied seaman yourself, Ricky,” he added. I knew from reading about “the lifestyle” that available women were the currency of the swingers’ realm, the price of admission to every soiree. In Kokker’s circle, however, I wasn’t so sure. So I asked.

“What’ll it cost me?”

“‘What’ll it cost me?’ Why Ricky, I’m surprised you’d weigh the sincerity of my hospitality. In other words, you want to know the quid pro quo, as you lawyers are so fond of saying? That means tit for tat, doesn’t it?”

“More like fair exchange,” I said.

“You should have ventured to inquire before you shipped out,” Kokker said.

“Doctor, I hope I haven’t misled you by giving you the mistaken idea either of us wants to begin anything like this—”

“Begin? Ricky, it’s much too late for that. You’ve already cast off merely by watching. You’re in it up to your eyeballs now, matey. By not plucking them out at your first opportunity, you’ve made your choice clear. I can tell you’re eager for the savor of forbidden fruit.”

“I’m afraid it might leave a bad taste in my mouth,” I said. Sandra’s gluey lips had bloated into a pout from exertion until they resembled a bad collagen job. The middle finger of her right hand seemed to have become grossly elongated. Home video distortion—Kokker probably needed to adjust the tracking.

“We’ll even let you cut to the head of the line so you can get first crack of the evening at her. How does January twentieth sound?”

“Not interested,” I lied. It would be public sex with Sandra, and with the husband’s permission. But was I prepared to pay the price?

“Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it, Ricky. You’re what, forty-six now? When are you going to grow up and sample life’s adult pleasures? Whatever puritanical hang-ups you might be laboring under, simply lay them aside for one night—for Diane’s sake. I daresay you’ll both find the entire ‘do what thou wilt’ experience quite liberating. January twentieth. Dress for dinner.”

“Doctor, I said no and I mean no.”

I got up to leave. Kokker’s whiny voice pursued me. “Do you think it’s fair to Diane, keeping her cooped up with four children and nothing to do but cook, clean, and wait on all five of you? Doesn’t she deserve some fun out of life, or perhaps you make that decision for her as well?”

“Good day, Dr. Kokker.”

“We’ll reserve the date for the two of you. In the unlikely event you change your minds and wish to cancel, you have my private number.”

It was a judgment on me that I even knew Dr. Kokker, much less had his private number committed to memory. As I passed near his tape rack on my way out, I squinted to read some of the names on the labels, but the light was too dim for close work. Besides, I was late for a house blessing.

 

 

 

Chapter Two – Entertained by the Dead

 

 

Wolf was at the door. Wolfgang Galeer, our four-year-old son. I knelt and hugged him. He smelled like chocolate chip cookies.

“Where’s Mommy?” I asked.

“Stripping,” he said.

I found Diane on her knees in the cold, drafty shop, her plastic-gloved hands rubbing out the last vestiges of Mary Kay pink from a ladder-back chair. All the windows were open to let the paint stripper fumes escape. The chair was her latest acquisition, one of a set of six she’d glommed onto at an estate sale. Her expert eye had seen through the garish surface to the inner quality beneath.

Diane had a third eye. Whenever we kissed and our eyes lined up together just right, hers—clear blue as Curacao—would seem to converge into a single cyclopean orb centered just below her hairline. The mystery was how that eye had so far been blind to all my betrayals.

Diane had been the darling of psychic researchers on two continents before she could ride a bicycle. Look up world parapsychology in the late sixties if you want to see pictures of her as a child.

I preferred the way she looked as a grown woman. In tight, faded jeans and an oversized work shirt, she was my denim Delilah, my furniture-rescuing femme fatale. A year ago, in a burst of quixotic entrepreneurial spirit, we’d set about to transform Diane’s avocation into her vocation. We bought a hundred-year-old house in east Belleville; went ass-over-teakettle in debt to remodel most of the main floor into a spacious, well-lit salon with a workshop in back; and Remembrance of Things Past was born. The rest of the main floor was our kitchen, family room, den, and half bath. Upstairs were four bedrooms: Anastasia and Tatiana shared one, Nicholas and Wolfgang another. Diane and I had the master bedroom with adjoining bath. That left one for company, if you’ve been counting. Had I known what company was coming, I’d have done better converting it into a study. It soon would prove to be one bedroom too many.

Long wisps of Diane’s dark hair had escaped from under her old St. Louis Cardinals cap and fallen down over her eyes. I wanted to creep up behind her like Dracula, then see whether I could slip my hands over her shoulders and into the breast pockets of her work shirt before she could stop me. I timed my goat-footed steps to the rhythm of Diane’s elbow grease. Finally, I made it across the bare wood floor. Crouching directly behind her, I plunged four fingers into each of her pockets, wiggled them, and said, “Spare change?”

She didn’t even flinch. Diane unhaltered in a work shirt is a silken treasure. The twin swells behind her pockets danced for me when she turned to be kissed, her mouth soft and fleshy as peach season’s ripest yield. “Careful,” she said at last. “Wouldn’t want to get anything on you.”

“How’d you know it was me?”

“Never sneak up on a psychic,” she said. Then I saw my face in the narrow mirror behind her.

“I knew it was all done with mirrors,” I said.

But suddenly something troubled Diane. Her expression and her entire demeanor transformed in an instant. I had witnessed it many times before, but it still disturbed me, Diane’s power when it was on her like this. Was it the harbinger of some unimaginable evolutionary advance? Or the last vestigial throwback to some dark vision the human race was better off abandoning, a curse of discernment atrophied in the rest of us like a pineal eye? Had she read my mind tonight? I tried not to think about Kokker, or Janis, or Sandra. Especially not about video Sandra. It was like trying not to think of a pink elephant.

“God, Ricky, you’re red as fire,” she said. I stupidly looked in the mirror again, as though I could see my own aura burning there like unbanked flames of lust.

“Can’t a guy even get the hots for his own wife?” I tried, but she wasn’t having any.

“I don’t like it, Rick.” But she did let me kiss her again. It was Wolf who saved me by yanking on Diane’s shirttail, vying for her favors until we made him the peanut butter in the sandwich.

“What time is it, hon?” Diane sighed into my ear, languid as a cat. Diane couldn’t wear a watch. Some mysterious and jealous inner force stopped or broke every watch moments after it touched her wrist.

“Almost six-thirty,” I said.

She tensed. “Father Seraphim’s coming at seven for the house blessing, and I’m not even showered!”

“I like my women funky.” Ricky of the red aura, backpedaling furiously now.

“This funky woman’s gonna wail on your bee hind, lawyer-man!” Diane chased me down the hall and into the kitchen, snapping a red shop rag at my butt. Wolf brought up the rear, shrieking with delight. The other three monkeys in our zoo sat ranged around the kitchen table tackling their homework. Vlad, our black tomcat, lurked by his food dish. Diane hurried upstairs to shower and change. I gave Teeta’s and Stacie’s homework a once-over, then settled in to help Nick with his math. All the while Wolf swarmed around in a one-preschooler distractathon.

“What if I never get it?” Nick wailed over the last problem, subtracting one four-digit number from another. It required “regrouping.” In my school days, we’d called it “borrowing” and “carrying.” My grade school teachers surely would have been proud to see how adept I had become at borrowing. And how all my creditors were carrying me. It was the new math.

“You borrow—I mean regroup—from the tens column. There’s a zero in the tens column, so you borrow—regroup—from the hundreds column. See how easy it is?”

But Nick still didn’t get it. Before we’d finished, his paper was smudged and torn, the tabletop littered with eraser crumbs mixed with his tears. There would be no excuse for my rage, drug-induced or whatever else its cause, but in fact the only thing keeping my potential screaming fit in check tonight was the prospect of an eavesdropping priest at the door.

Just as I was about to totally lose control of the situation, I heard Diane’s soothing voice behind me saying, “Good job, Nicky.” Diane in her robe calmly toweled her just-washed hair with the priest due any minute.

“Hon, it’s five to seven. What about Father Seraphim?”

“The phone’s about to ring,” she said. It did. Father Seraphim, apologizing that he would be delayed half an hour. Diane went back upstairs to dress.

I sometimes became annoyed with Diane for her refusal to take advantage of her psychic gifts. Legalized gambling—gaming, to be politically correct and non-pejorative—thrived all over the Metro East. Our money problems could be over in a single night. But Diane’s strict Eastern Orthodox beliefs forbade any resort to psychic powers, especially for gain. She considered such practices sorcery, the work of the devil. She had tried to show me examples of how the Bible condemned such things: the witch of Endor; Leviticus, Chapter Nineteen; St. Paul exorcising the soothsaying slave girl in Macedonia; “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” I found her reticence archaic. Witchcraft hadn’t been a capital crime since the seventeenth century, and the country hadn’t gone to hell yet. Just ask any of the shopkeepers in the little New Age occult stores along East Main.

My thoughts were of adultery, drugs, and money by the time Father Seraphim knocked at the kitchen door. The homework had all been cleared away from the table and packed into schoolbags. Diane appeared, a vision in an azure turtleneck sweater and black skirt, just as I opened the door to him.

Father Seraphim removed the hat from his bald head, laughing when the monkeys vied to wear it. He was seventy-five years old if he was a day. His white, Old World beard nearly covered his clerical collar. The kids lined up for hugs. Diane was next-to-last in line. I shook his hand like a client, not having been brought up to be your hugging type.

The children, overexcited for the house blessing, watched Father Seraphim open a zippered black bag then remove a crucifix and a small Orthodox icon of Christ. We had one like it hanging on the eastern wall of our bedroom. He asked Diane for a small bowl, set it on the table next to the icon, and from a plastic squeeze bottle marked with an Orthodox cross, squirted out enough holy water to cover the bottom.

The annual Orthodox tradition of the blessing of homes begins during the early days of the new year. The blessing is believed to renew the sanctity of the homes of Orthodox Christians, calling to mind the baptism of Christ in the Jordan. Some say the blessing also has the effect of driving whatever evil lurks within a house out into the open.

Although I had witnessed thirteen prior home blessings, this would be the first year Father Seraphim blessed our new house. Facing to the east, the stole of his vestment draped over his shoulders, he laid a large sprig of dried basil in the holy water and began the Trisagion prayer.

Diane stood at my left. I wrapped my arm about her waist. She whispered an apology for jabbing me in the ribs with her elbow when we all crossed ourselves in the Orthodox manner—right to left, as distinguished from the Catholics—and joined in at the Our Father. Even Wolf repeated some of the words, although he had a little trouble when he got to the part about forgiving those who trespass against us. Who doesn’t?

Father Seraphim traced the sign of the cross on our foreheads with the holy water. Then, enlisting Nick’s aid to carry the bowl, he passed through the house singing the Tropar of the Cross: “O Lord, save Thy people, and bless Thine inheritance. Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries, and by virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy habitation.”

We all followed behind in a small procession. A peeping tom might have thought he’d wandered into Eastern Europe. As Father Seraphim entered each room, he dipped the basil sprig in holy water, held it above his head, and shook fine drops three times to a room. The two younger children squealed with delight each time the spray touched them.

After the blessing, while Diane stood at the counter fixing coffee, I sat with the priest at the kitchen table. He said, “So, Ricky, keeping you pretty busy at the office?”

I recalled one of Mark Kane’s favorite aphorisms: I’d rather be making money than be busy. I was busier than the devil at work. I was the guy you came to see when you got into a fender bender, arguably not entirely your fault, and thought you were being screwed by the insurance company. I was the guy you actually got to see when you came in thinking that you were going to see Mark Kane, the reassuring, familiar face from the television ads. I was the guy who told you what a money case you had going in while I steered you to Dr. Kokker or someone just like him. Then six or so months later, blaming the bugs in your case, I was also the guy who broke the bad news to you about the system’s unfairness and the death of Santa Claus. I was the one who pressed your short-money, postdated check into your hand while I consoled you all the way out to the waiting room. I didn’t do divorce; I didn’t do wills and trusts; and I didn’t do windows. Aside from that, in my spare office moments, I saw more than my share of hapless misdemeanants, rest-stop Romeos, common railers and brawlers, uncommon railers and brawlers, mopers with intent to gawk, and possessors of rape tools. I was what we in the law game call a non-equity partner. That means that when the bill collectors are beating my door down, I can show them my name on the letterhead. That means straight salary, overwork, long hours, and burnout. That means a wearying close-order drill of court appearances, client interviews, depositions, a constant relay of telephone tag with insurance adjusters, and an endless procession of trials, appeals, and six-and-a-half day work weeks. Dictating and trial prep spread like athlete’s foot into what I laughably referred to as my “free time.”

“Too busy to go to confession?” Father Seraphim inquired, so softly I wasn’t sure I heard him.

The kids flipped on the TV in the next room. We heard the familiar theme music: Wilbur Hatch conducting the Desi Arnaz Orchestra. I yelled for them to turn it down.

“I hope you don’t mind, Father,” Diane was saying. “It’s kind of a tradition after homework on weekdays. We’d rather let them watch those old sitcoms from the fifties on the Christian television station than some violent, smutty show on cable.”

“You are wise to keep watch. I will go and say goodbye to them and give them my blessing.”

After he left the room I said to Diane, “You know, it’s kind of creepy when you think about it.”

“What’s kind of creepy, hon?”

“Those old shows. The actors have all died, but the show must go on—forever. It’s like being entertained by the dead. They’d have to cast the reunion show from the cemetery.”

“Oh, Ricky,” Diane sighed, “You’ve just been working too hard.” She loved the old shows, often watching them with the children—although she knew every word—remembering her own childhood. She’d learned English as a child watching I Love Lucy.

“Not as hard as you have,” I said. She sat on my lap, ever wary of the door leading from the family room. I purloined a kiss, then copped a feel.

I heard the priest’s gentle voice behind me saying, “What did I tell you, Diane?” He must have made an end run through the kitchen. Diane jumped a foot from my embrace, stood, and smoothed invisible wrinkles from her skirt, pretending nonchalance—a teenager caught making out by her parents.

“When I marry them, they stay married.” Father Seraphim’s severe expression broke into a warm smile.

 

 

 

Chapter Three – Big Artie

 

The five floors of courthouse windows mirrored the overcast sky. Three years had passed since the out-of-town ACLU lawyers had made them take down the crèche, the cross, and even the Ten Commandments. Now the empty marble tablets—sandblasted blank—hovered like waiting gravestones over the main entrance. When you throw out the Ten Commandments, what takes their place? From my vantage point across the square, I watched the courthouse secretaries taking their first smoke break of the day. They stared with unseeing eyes at the icy sidewalks that formed a pentacle around the fountain. I was so preoccupied I didn’t hear Janis come in.

“I’m glad some of us have time to stare out the window,” she said. Closing and locking my door, she smiled in that provocative way she had and asked, “How was your date with Kokker last night? Stay for dinner and drinks?”

“Jealous?”

She pulled me against her and ran a generous expanse of tongue against my hard palate while her hands groped for my hardening cock. “Not as long as I can feel that welcoming response,” she murmured. “Besides, it’s ridiculous to be jealous of a married man with a twelve-inch penis.”

“Twelve and a half.”

“Rounding error, darling.” She’d actually measured once, after I’d accused her of being a size queen.

“Don’t get me started. I have clients to see.”

“Better not let them see you like this.”

“Any ideas?”

“Just one you might like.”

Minutes later, Janis showed the two of them in. Cootie Tremayne was carrying himself a bit more stiffly than I remembered but otherwise looked the same as ever: white buzz cut, thick shoulders, and a stocky frame. His complexion, if one looked closely enough, resembled old-fashioned currency paper with its broken strands of red and blue betraying his years of boozing. I knew his whole history from the meetings I used to attend.

The tic circus with Cootie was another story. He looked like a textbook double-y chromosome specimen on a crystal-meth weight loss program. Shoulder-length crazy-guy hair framed his balding pate like shower curtains. Stringy double-clenching biceps hung from the armholes of a black t-shirt. Neck muscles quivered and spasmed as though trying to escape the sagging crew neck.

Cootie turned to the younger man and said, “What am I gonna do with you? You know your eyes look like two piss holes in a snow bank?”

“How’s it going, Artie?” I said.

He gave me a hearty twelve-step meeting reply. “Hi. I’m Artie, and I’m a substance abuser in denial.”

“I’m the one being abused around here,” Cootie said. “Well, go on. Tell him why we come to see him.” He leaned forward toward me, obviously a painful effort for him, and advised, “Don’t never have kids. Always wear a rubber.”

“Too late for that advice, Cootie.”

Artie Tremayne fished in his pocket and came up with a dog-eared amber citation. He flipped it across the desk. I scanned its contents, expecting to find some drug-related misdemeanor. Instead, Artie had been charged with public indecency.

“Flashing two old women,” Cootie moaned, shaking his head, then wiping his eyes with the heels of his hands before looking upward as though imploring the ceiling. “Why, Artie? Why them two old ladies?”

“They were giving me the stink eye,” Artie shrugged.

“They was giving him the stink eye, so he whips it out and says, ‘If you girls’ hands are cold, whyn’t you come warm ‘em up on this here?’” Cootie shook his head again, looking to me in wonderment and vexation.

“We could say I was taking a leak,” Artie offered. “Except I went ahead and gave ‘em the batwings, too.”

“I don’t even wanna know what that means,” Cootie said.

I didn’t want to hear any more from Artie about what had happened in the parking lot. From all my past dealings with him—drug and otherwise—I knew Artie had to be guilty of whatever was down on paper and then some. Call it intuition. Anyway, the whole point of the initial interview was to get the money. The State’s discovery would tell me all I needed and more than I wanted to know about what had actually happened. Artie and I could always fine-tune the details later.

“Bet those old bitches felt ten years younger once they sized up Big Artie giving them the evil eye,” Artie said. “Big header of steam rising off him.”

“Genius here does it standing right next to the truck,” Cootie said. “Then he jumps in and peels out, with Tremayne Construction Company right there on the door. I’m glad your mother ain’t alive to see none of this.”

Carla Tremayne had filed for divorce from Cootie by the time of her grisly unsolved murder almost twenty years ago. She’d been making ends meet in a massage parlor called the Salome Spa in a little strip mall a few miles north, outside of Collinsville. I know because I’d been pegged to handle her divorce. “Hoosier divorces,” I remember Mark Kane saying to me at the time. “Pickup truck worth more than the house. They fight harder over custody of the coon dogs than custody of the kids. Good way for you young associates to get your feet wet without doing too much damage.”

Sheriff’s Detective John Diaz told me the first thing he’d spotted at the crime scene was what looked like two loaves of pumpernickel in a towel basket beside the waterbed. Then it dawned on him that each loaf had a nipple on it. No weapon had ever been found.

Diaz, like most of the hot dogs in the Sheriff’s Department, knew about Diane. Years later, desperate to solve the cold case, one or another of them still asked her every now and then whether she might consider going to the scene or maybe trying on a piece or two of Carla’s costume jewelry. They might have asked her to handle some article of the victim’s clothing, except for the fact that Carla had been working nude the night of her murder. Diaz himself never asked. In fact, he discouraged the others from bothering Diane. I think he liked her.

Diane always said she couldn’t, meaning she wouldn’t, but one thing she did confirm was that Cootie was innocent—a fact Diaz already knew from independent evidence. Cootie had been reliably placed miles away at an AA meeting from the time Carla clocked in until well after her death.

It was time to spring the quote on Cootie. We at Mark Kane were not so inflexible as to adhere to a rigid fee schedule. Fees were floating—whatever the traffic would bear. Today I calculated the traffic would bear three thousand dollars up front, for the “best possible deal.” Nobody ever asked how much it would cost for the next-best possible deal. Cootie wrote out the check, which was probably why Artie had brought him along.

Janis tapped at my door, poked her head in, and said, “Hope I’m not interrupting any guy talk. I just wanted to remind Artie that he has an appointment at Kokker Chiropractic right away. He’s already missed the last two this week. One more and it might jeopardize his work comp benefits.”

“Kokker’s got me red-shirted. Temporarily totally disabled,” Artie said. “I’m supposed to go there every day for my adjustment. My back’s all out of whack from falling off that defective ladder.”

“And mine’s all out of whack from doing his damn work on top of my own,” Cootie bitched. “He warn’t too disabled to scare the Depends off them old gals last night, though, was he?” He looked to me, parent-to-parent, for confirmation before handing over the check.

“My back don’t hurt at night,” Artie said. “That’s when I do some of my best work—at night.”

“Whyn’t you see if Kokker will release you for graveyard shift, then?”

Artie said, “I do some of my best work at night in graveyards.”

Janis shrugged before saying, “Anyway, the appointment’s in less than five minutes.” She had no sooner pulled the door closed than Artie half-turned and lapped the air after her. Cootie reached over and cuffed him on the shoulder.

“Kokker’s old lady’s carrying around a matched set a’ beer tits on her, too,” Artie went on. “Bet she could keep two grown men fed. Tell me Kokker ain’t a rack man. I bet he’s the Rachmaninoff of the rack men.” Artie laughed the laugh of the behaviorally disturbed, a tweaked-out sheep’s bleat through taut lips chapped from licking.

“Well, I got news for you,” Cootie said. “I gotta have the truck to pick up some corner bead for a job today. I ain’t got time to set in it for no two hours and wait while you get yourself no overpriced rubdown.”

“I’ll drop you,” I volunteered, then regretted it immediately. I might have asked Janis, but I didn’t trust Artie alone with her. For that matter, I didn’t trust him alone with me, although he’d been my ice connection for the past two years.

 

 

I took West Main across Belleville. Kokker’s nearest clinic was in the west end. Halfway there, Artie rolled down the power window, stuck his big death’s head out, and hollered a string of obscenities at some schoolgirls. As soon as he retracted his head, I raised the window and set the childproof locks.

Five blocks later, Artie posed a legal question. “Is it seriously illegal say if I was to, you know, creepy-crawl in through some young chick’s bedroom window at night?” He shot me a sly sidelong glance, then held it while we shared a Charles Manson moment.

“Seriously illegal.”

“Speaking of illegal, you interested in doing a little shopping?”

“I think I’ll pass,” I said. Artie shrugged. I saw every bone in his shoulder move. He said something that sounded like, “Horny sweaty molly pants.”

“Excuse me?”

“Like they used to say at the old roundtable, ‘Shamed be he who thinks ill of it.’”

“I didn’t know you’d studied the Algonquin wits.”

From the periphery of my vision, Artie leered at me. “I study tits, not wits,” he said. “Anyway, I’m not talking that shitty Missouri glass you’re used to.”

“I’m only used to it because you’ve been selling it to me.”

“Yeah, well, today only I’m offering to you, my most valued customer, the Dom Perignon of methamphetamines: Crankenstein. Mudflap mojo. Stove top stay-up. Redneck rush. Trailer-park torque. Viagra nasal spray. Wal-Mart wig-out. Truck-stop eye-opener. Hillbilly hyperactivity. Don’t critique it, tweak it. Don’t diss it, you’ll miss it. Don’t deplore it, score it.”

We passed Seventeenth Street on a green light. Artie wasn’t finished.

“Ridge-runner Ritalin. NASCAR No-Doz. Ozark octane. Skinhead STP. Don’t malign it, mainline it. Don’t damn it, slam it. Snort it, you’ll exhort it. Inhale it, you’ll regale it. Once you toot it, you’ll wanna shoot it. Don’t object ‘til you inject. All you feel is a tiny little prick.” Artie grabbed his crotch for emphasis.

“I read somewhere you can manufacture your own crystal meth in a home lab using a few common household chemicals,” I ventured, making conversation. Block after block, Artie’s word salad rap was making me progressively more nervous.

“Yeah, then light up a cigarette or forget to shut off the pilot light to the water heater and blow your ass off. No way, Counselor. Don’t go setting up your own clan lab. Stick with me. I’m strictly retail. Cash and carry.” We sat in silence, waiting for the light to change at North Belt. Then Artie said, “I’m serious, though. You owe it to yourself to score some Crankenstein, especially being in your profession—not to mention your age.”

“What’s my age got to do with it?”

“You’re what, pushing fifty? Crankenstein makes you more loco than a locomotive, able to jump tall bimbos at a single bound. And you, disguised as Ricky Galeer, mild-mannered attorney for a great metropolitan law firm—you get the picture? Once you get amped up on this shit you can service the ladies twenty-four/seven, man, although erections lasting more than four days may require immediate medical attention. And, while limited supplies last, a special introductory trial-size free complimentary sample of Crankenstein is yours for the asking. Operators are standing by.” He tossed a clear plastic sandwich baggie on the console between us, saying, “You can thank me later.” We had pulled into the Kokker Chiropractic lot. Artie was one of those guys who’s half out of the car while it’s still rolling.

“Don’t do me any favors,” I called out after him, but I wasn’t sure he’d heard me.

 

 

 

Chapter Four – Dagger of the Mind

 

By the time I made it back to the office, it was nearly ten. My ten-fifteen was already waiting for me in the lobby. Liz Hare. Half of a loving couple I’d done some commercial law work for years ago, back when they were buying their business. A three hundred dollar fee had mushroomed into a permanent retainer—in their minds. Every time a legal question or problem arose, one of them would call me with the other one invariably listening and prompting in the background. Then she’d pass the phone, and I’d have to explain the same thing all over again to her better half. What to do with a twenty-dollar bad check. Whether Illinois law required a return or exchange policy. What would happen if a customer slipped and fell? They’d always begin the telephone conversation by asking whether I remembered them, as though anyone could ever forget Liz Hare and Gwendace Fox, co-proprietors of The Fox & Hare Occult Mysteries Bookstore and Notions. After explaining that a life partner cannot inherit under Illinois intestacy laws, I’d done their mutual wills for them. This time I knew it had to be serious for Liz to have made an appointment rather than calling in for free advice and for her to have shown up alone.

I liked Liz Hare. She was about my age, but in better shape. A licensed and well-seasoned midwife, she’d home-delivered each of our four monkeys without a hitch. Perhaps because of her early childhood in the former Soviet Union, Diane had a deep and visceral fear of hospitals. We were fortunate there had been no need of one for any of the births. “Very easy birth,” Liz had remarked every time. It was how Liz had come to meet Gwendace Fox over twenty years ago. Liz had delivered Gwendace’s son. As I drove to work each morning, I often saw Liz out jogging before her store hours began, her thin chest heaving, her athletic form bathed in sweat, a bandanna securing her iron-gray wedge cut. Her union with Gwendace had endured longer than most marriages, including my own, although Diane and I were still in the running. Today I smelled Old Spice as she delivered her customary vice-grip handshake and sat down facing me in the chair opposite my desk.

“Gwendace has disappeared,” she said without preamble.

“Disappeared? When?”

“Two nights ago. I’m sick about it. It’s not like her to be gone from home. Something’s wrong, I know it.”

Trying not to sound condescending, I said, “Why don’t you file a missing person’s report?”

She looked at me like she wanted to laugh. “You know what the cops would do with something like that? They’d round-file it, figure there’s nothing strange about one dyke running out on the other. I need action now.”

“No offense, Liz, but we’re not detectives here. That’s what you need in your situation.”

“Know any good ones?”

As a matter of fact, I did. John Diaz moonlighted for us as an investigator whenever he wasn’t busy maintaining his reputation as an overtime hog for the County Sheriff’s Department. He could find anybody once he started looking. We used him to serve process, find witnesses and nail them down in signed statements, and run license plates and rap sheets off the record. I always suspected, but never confirmed, that Mark Kane used him as a chaser as well. One way or another, more than our share of the bad accidents in County seemed to wind up in Kane’s office with Kane’s business cards in their hands and “Diaz sent me” on their lips.

I suggested Diaz to Liz. “I wonder if he’d still remember me after all these years,” she mused.

“Didn’t know you two had ever met.” She nodded. A grimace crossed her face.

“Bad choice?” I asked. “I’m sure there are plenty of private investigators in the phone book.” But Liz waved that thought away.

“I don’t want to involve any more strangers than necessary in my personal business,” she said. “If Diaz is as good as you say he is, I want him on the case right away. You oversee everything for me. Confidentially, of course.”

“We’ll have to bill you for the time involved, then,” I warned her. “At legal rate for my time, and sixty an hour for his.”

“No problem.”

“Am I missing something? A moment ago I could have sworn there was bad blood between the two of you.”

Liz got a faraway look in her eye. “Bad blood,” she said. “Yes, that’s exactly what was between us.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning he wanted to pin that Carla Tremayne murder on somebody. He kept sniffing around Gwendace and me. Especially me. He said some very rude and insensitive things at the time. You know, politically incorrect things, but it was just his way of trying to use my anger to draw me out, to see if I was guilty.”

“Then why use him?”

She shrugged. “I guess because he was like a dog with a bone. What do you call it? Tenacious. He was tenacious where that case was concerned. I don’t believe he ever gives up easily. Besides, I think way down deep he always believed somebody other than me did Carla.”

I couldn’t resist. “Who?”

“Just a feeling. Don’t quote me, okay? He’s another friend of your office.”

The Mark Kane office’s best friend in the world was Dr. Kirk Kokker. Just as that realization hit me, she nodded again.

“You’ve been fooling around with the occult too long, Liz. You’re developing the power of thought transference.”

“You never heard it from me,” she said. “I’m not complaining, believe me. He kept Gwendace and me open for business single-handedly the first couple of years until the shop caught on.”

“You know, I had to go over to his house last night on business.”

She showed me the same ironic smile as Janis had, then asked, “How was it?”

“Palatial,” I said.

“Don’t get too chummy,” she said. “I’m not so sure Diaz was wrong about him. He was into everything back then, running ads in every occult fanzine and antiquarian journal to get the word out that he was interested in buying the Lilith talisman and money was no object. That made him a lightning rod for every charlatan and hustler in the hocus-pocus racket. And believe me, there are plenty of those. Makes it hard for a middle-aged rune-roller like me to make an honest living telling fortunes if the shop were to close.”

“Why would the shop close?”

“I can’t do it all by myself,” she said, then quickly added, “but that’s not why I’m trying to find Gwendace. I need to find her again because I love her.”

“What if she has found somebody else, Liz?”

“Ricky,” she said, “I’m surprised at you. You sound just like the cops.”

I apologized and promised to put her in touch with Diaz. Janis was bugging me about my other waiting appointments, but I had to ask. “By the way, what’s the Lilith talisman?”

“You should come by the shop sometime, Ricky,” she said. “We have a wide selection of books for sale on that very subject.”

“Come on, I’m serious.”

“So am I,” she smiled.

“I just never heard of it before, that’s all,” I said.

She sucked in her cheeks and raised her eyebrows. The effect was to show me a skull outlined through her clear jogger’s skin. With an amused expression and a fake brogue, she said, “I’ll conjure there’s a faery world of things you’ve never heard or thought of, Ricky Galeer.”

“No argument there.”

“The Lilith talisman is the occult world’s Holy Grail. Actually an unholy grail, a legendary sacred—I mean profane—object that reportedly gives its possessor great powers over the Sisterhood.”

“The Sisterhood?”

She looked at me like a grade school teacher exasperated by a dunce. “You are ignorant of the supernatural, aren’t you?”

“I suppose so. I never got around to studying it.”

“We’re talking about things that study us even as we’re studying them, Ricky. It’s maybe just as well that you don’t know too much.”

“Come on. What sisterhood? Is it some gay thing?”

She drew back in mock hauteur; she knew it was my idea of a joke. “I like men, Ricky, I really do. Don’t push it. Are you familiar at least with the Lilith legend?”

“Lilith was Adam’s first wife,” I said. “Not mentioned by name in the Bible. She wanted equal rights, woman on top, all that, and Adam wasn’t having any. So she packed her bags and cut the honeymoon short.”

“According to Jewish mystics, she disappeared into the wilderness,” Liz said. “But that’s not the end of the story.”

“So what’s the rest?”

“She is supposed to have become the devil’s mate. Lilith is believed to enjoy slipping into the bridal chamber on the honeymoon night to seduce brides before their husbands have ‘come in to them,’ as the saying goes.”

“Sounds to me like you’re preying on male insecurity.”

“I’ve made a few males insecure myself,” Liz said, “and awarded a few sets of horns in the process.”

I knew Gwendace had left her husband and child for Liz. “So how does the Sisterhood fit in?” I asked.

“I’m getting to that,” she said. “The Sisterhood is an ancient cult. They claim to carry Lilith’s original bloodline.”

“Like the Templars are the descendants of Jesus? Come on. All this is just a Middle Eastern fairy tale.”

She didn’t answer right away. When she did, her voice had changed to a low murmur. I could hardly hear her say, “It’s more than that. Much more.”

I lowered my voice to a conspiratorial level matching hers. “Liz, you don’t mean to tell me you actually believe any of this?”

She fixed me with a hard stare. “What I believe isn’t important. What is important is that your buddy Kokker believes it, and he has reason to. So be careful, Ricky. We all know he’s nuts. But some say he may actually possess the real Lilith talisman. I think they’re right.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Because going on twenty years ago the want ads suddenly stopped, and Kokker clammed up about the whole thing. He never mentioned the Lilith talisman again.”

“He invited Diane and me to dinner. January twentieth.”

Liz blanched. “Don’t go,” she hissed with a hoarse rasp that startled me with its intensity. “Whatever you do, stay home that night. Put the kids to bed early. Hold on to your wife. That’s Saint Agnes’ Eve, an occult holiday, and Kokker and his crowd are way into the dark side.”

“Saint Agnes’ Eve is the Keats poem, right? Something about a girl seeing her future husband?”

Liz had pursed her lips while I spoke. She continued to stare right through me. “I’m not talking romance here, Ricky. There are those who believe that the evil dead can be raised on Saint Agnes’ Eve. There’s sure to be a black mass with all the trimmings somewhere within an easy broomstick commute from where we’re sitting right now. And you’re talking about having dinner that night with a man who’s heavy into the black arts. A man who may possess the actual Lilith talisman.”

“So you’re saying Kokker controls this Sisterhood you believe really exists? Come on, Liz. What does he get out of it?”

She looked away like someone whose instinct for self-preservation was starting to kick in. Then she said, “Money. Power. Sex, maybe. I get the impression Kokker was one of those guys who was always undersexed growing up. Now he’s got a trophy wife and even she’s not enough for him. See, Lilith was—is—a seducer, of men as well as women. The girls in the Sisterhood are just pure fire and brimstone in bed.”

“That sounds like the voice of experience,” I said.

She ignored me. “Kokker has always been obsessed with sex. This Lilith thing plays into his perversions. He may have stumbled onto the darkest secret of the Sisterhood.”

I took her hand as though she were my sister. “What is it, Liz?”

She pulled away. “God, you’ve got a lot of negative energy today, Ricky. I can tell just by your touch that you’ve been with him.”

“So tell me.”

“See, there is reputed to be an inner circle of purebloods in the Sisterhood, and they all loathe men.”

“Purebloods? That sounds like kind of a difficult feat to pull off, biologically speaking. I’ve got four kids, remember? Give me credit for knowing a thing or two about human reproduction.”

“We’re not talking human here. The Sisterhood—at least the purebloods—are a totally separate species, even though they look just like us. Don’t forget you’re talking to a midwife, Ricky. I’ve seen a lot of things in twenty-five years. Some of them have been pretty strange. Plus I take courses to stay current.”

“In what? Applied witchcraft?” I regretted the remark immediately.

“Human physiology,” she chided. “With an emphasis in hematology. I run up to SIUE three nights a week. Have you ever heard of parthenogenesis?”

“What?”

“Asexual reproduction. Snakes use it sometimes,” she said. “And they’ve been able to induce it in rabbits in the lab. The offspring are always female.”

“So you’re saying this ‘serpent’s wife’ theory has some biological validity? That the Sisterhood has been able to induce asexual reproduction in humans? How?”

“Who knows what characteristics, what talents, Lilith may have devised in order to survive her self-banishment to the wilderness? All I can tell you is that science knows parthenogenesis is a natural response to environmental adversity, a last-ditch survival mechanism for preservation of the species. The Sisterhood can reproduce woman-to-woman to pass along their own genetic diversity and refrain from interbreeding with humankind. Specifically, with men.”

“What are the purebloods afraid of, anyway?” I asked, trying to mollify her as well as myself by poking some holes in her theory. “If all the offspring are female, and they can’t interbreed with males, we’re all pretty safe, aren’t we?”

“I didn’t say they couldn’t interbreed. I said they could refrain from it.”

“What does all this have to do with Kokker?”

“He probably has the talisman, and its power over the Sisterhood is legendary. It goes all the way back to Solomon’s day.”

“King Solomon? Come on, Liz. What did you do, buy up all the occult books from the Elvis Presley estate?”

“Go ahead and laugh,” she said, “just do me one favor and skip dinner with Kokker on Saint Agnes’ Eve.”

“OK, but only if you tell me what King Solomon could possibly have to do with the Lilith talisman.”

“Legend has it Solomon sealed up seventy-two spirits. Demons. One of them was Lilith. He did it with a charmed dagger, a talisman that could destroy her power over men. Then along came the Babylonians. They sacked the temple and the palace, taking the Jews into captivity. One of the things they plundered, so the story goes, was the Lilith talisman. With me so far?”

“So the Babylonians let the Lilith genie out of the bottle and didn’t even get to collect on their three wishes?” This was not the conversation I had expected to have when I cut myself shaving that morning.

“The talisman confers untold wealth and power upon its human possessor for a season, but ultimately brings doom and ruin,” Liz said. “Just remember what happened to King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. There’s a jinx on the talisman that makes the Hope Diamond look like a lucky rabbit’s foot.”

“Kokker seems to be doing all right for himself,” I said. “I’m the one could use a little less doom and ruin these days.”

“But that’s my point,” Liz said. “The thief of the Lilith talisman, the books say, enjoys untold wealth and power for twenty years, but then suffers doom and ruin unless the twenty-year cycle is renewed. See, in nature everything is in cycles. There are twenty-year cycles, hundred-year cycles, millennial cycles. The natural world’s clock spins ‘round and ‘round like the universe. Evil or good, whatever you do comes back to you, we witches say, three times. Nature is cyclical. Time is cyclical. Linear time is a modern hallucination by comparison, a distortion. The true line doesn’t exist in nature.”

“Liz,” I said, “I’d love to sit here and discuss geometry with you…”

“I know, I know,” she said, waving her hand as she rose. “You have other people waiting. I’ll give Diaz whatever information I can. Have him come by the shop tonight. Thanks, Ricky.” She took my hand in both of hers, negative energy or not. “Be very careful. For my sake, and for the sake of those you love.”

I told her I would. That was before the dark side threw me its first curve. She was right. True lines don’t exist in nature.

 

 

 

Chapter Five – La Belle Dame Sans Souci

 

Rosy lights from Diane’s salon still filtered through the closed draperies and onto the lawn when I came home that night to find all four monkeys lounging in the family room. I went looking for Diane. When I tried the shop door, it was locked. She called out, “Who is it?” in a falsetto singsong.

“It’s me,” I said, in a voice that sounded even more tired than I felt. I heard the snick of a deadbolt sliding free.

“You’re alone, aren’t you?” she murmured, suddenly wary. I opened the door and stepped inside.

Diane stood in the center of Remembrance of Things Past waving a small piece of paper overhead and smiling her best bedroom smile. She was wearing a two-piece outfit—a wedding ring and an engagement ring. All the furniture in the shop had been cleared out.

Naked as Eve, Diane ran to my arms, practically knocking me down. She waved her slip of paper under my nose. It was a check for fifty thousand dollars. I thought it was a joke at first. Diane maypole-danced around me while I studied it. It was made out to Diane Galeer, and signed by Sandra Kokker.

“She stayed all afternoon,” Diane panted into my ear, leaning on my shoulders. “Bought one piece after another, on the spot, without haggling. She bought everything. She even made me an offer on my Baba’s icon.”

My eyes darted to the eastern wall of the shop. The icon of the Theotokos still hung there as always. The God-bearer of Sarov. An icon “not made with hands.” Centuries ago, after a miraculous spiritual visitation by the Mother of God to a monastery in Sarov, one monk had a special vision as he slept. The vision led him to the icon’s hiding place where it had been secreted from some forgotten iconoclastic mob. No one then living had ever seen it before. Often illumined in those early days with a supernatural glowing light, the icon was believed to work miracles whenever someone stood before it in true faith and prayed for Mary’s intercession with humility and tears. Diane’s grandmother had managed to hide it away again after the latest mob of iconoclasts took over Russia. Her mother had spirited it to the United States in the lining of a trunk. Diane took courses in art restoration before even attempting the task of cleaning away generations of candle soot. Her painstaking efforts had restored the icon to its original brilliance. I crossed myself. Diane caught me and said, in a reproving tone, “You don’t think I’d ever sell it, do you?”

I knew better. Once I’d broached the subject of having the icon appraised and insured. It would probably bring six figures from a collector. Diane didn’t speak to me all day. We made up that night, only because her Bible told her not to let the sun go down on her anger. “Come on,” she said now, tugging my wrists toward the workroom. “There’s a bug I want you to kill.”

I hung my clothes on a hall tree she was in the midst of resurrecting from oblivion. We lay down on a drop cloth she’d spread to protect the mattress on a mission-style double bed that had belonged to my mother, and I killed that bug dead. I do some of my best work in Diane’s workroom.

Later, I lay next to her, near-dreaming as I stared at the water stain marks and cracks in the ceiling plaster and listened to her voice. Diane invariably wanted to chat after we made love; the more inspired the lovemaking, the more intense the conversation after. She’d talk with her hands. Tonight she was unusually energized. I wanted to believe it was my workroom bug-killing prowess that had caused her excitement, but I knew it had to be the sale.

“We’re out of debt, Chet,” Diane sighed, her hands behind her head. She rolled toward me, planted a sloppy kiss that bore down on my lips, and burrowed her tongue into my mouth. Then she scissored one leg over mine, a sure sign she wanted seconds.

I feared that my body would betray me and disappoint her. Maybe Crankenstein would prove cheaper and longer lasting than Viagra. And I didn’t even need a prescription.

“How does it feel?” she whispered in my ear mere minutes later.

“Can’t you tell?” I said. It came out like the grunting gasp of a distance runner.

“To be out of debt, I mean.”

I drew up my torso to look at her; we both thrust away in up-tempo rhythm. As she always did when she was getting close, Diane slipped her hands behind her head and entwined her fingers in the long, dark tendrils of her hair.

“Sandra’s really pretty, isn’t she?”

“Hadn’t thought about it,” I lied.

“Well, she is,” Diane said, crossing her ankles against the small of my back to hold me inside of her. Or force me in even deeper. “She invited us over for dinner. January twentieth.”

I stopped what I was doing. “And you said?”

“I told her we’d love to,” Diane said, her voice smooth and sweet as sangria. “It’ll be a wonderful chance to see her house with all the stuff I sold her set up in it. Maybe by then I’ll have even more to offer her.” She giggled. “Anyway, I couldn’t very well say no, Ricky. I know how you hate to socialize, but for heaven’s sake, the woman’s just handed me fifty thousand dollars.”

I wasn’t so sure it was for heaven’s sake, but what did I know? Precious blood had been purloined from the highest vessels of my brain to serve a baser purpose. Then Diane said with an impish smile, “She’s got quite a set of what you men call headlights on her, too. Right, Ricky?”

“Not like yours, baby,” I said a moment later, collapsing against her. “She’s had a little surgery, you know.”

She play-slapped me on my vaccination scar and said, “So you have been looking, you dirty man, you!”

I was afraid the mood was gone, that she might be angry. Then she caressed my right hand and brought it gently up to her lips. She looked into my eyes and sucked the business end of my middle finger.

Saints help me, I was instantly ready again. For Diane, I was ready to break bread with the devil. It looked like she’d already accepted his dinner invitation.

 

 

 

Chapter Six – Civil Blood

 

I found Diaz already parked in my office when I arrived the next morning. He slumped in a chair, the heels of his size-twelve, spit-shined cop shoes propped up on one corner of my in-tray like they’d been bronzed there. I could take one look at him and tell he’d been working the graveyard shift. He alternated between second and third shift at the Sheriff’s Department so he could keep his days open for us. Specifically, for Janis.

Diaz stood nearly six feet two. He was my age but muscled like an All-American, his glossy dark hair lying straight back, his moonlight-pale forehead, strong jaw and steely features irresistible to women—except for the woman he wanted. Diaz was like a dog where Janis was concerned, but they’d never dated as far as I knew. She’d always be the one to give him his marching orders at the firm: to tell him which deadbeats had to be found and served, which elusive witnesses needed interviewing. She never led him on exactly, as far as I could tell, but her simply being there was all the encouragement Diaz needed.

I’d thought for years that Janis and Diaz would make an ideal couple: both devout Catholics, both smart investigators. He’d never remarried after losing Ellen, the beloved wife of his youth, to ovarian cancer years ago. Janis, a single working mother, struggled to raise a teenage daughter needing a father figure. Perfect, right? I knew Diaz thought so. That only left Janis to make it a hat trick.

“Liz Hare’s girlfriend playing hard to get? A little impromptu game of lezbo leapfrog?” he asked in a tired monotone. He’d gotten my message.

“More like hide-and-seek,” I said. “And we’re keeping track of our time on this one.”

He pulled a notebook from his jacket pocket and waved it at me by way of bored acknowledgement. “Liz and I are old pals,” he said.

“The Carla Tremayne murder? She said you’d remember. Said you even suspected her at one time.”

“She was so right for that,” Diaz said, shaking his head. “And that was no murder, man. That was more of a hog-butchering jamboree, you want my opinion.”

“Pretty bloody?”

Diaz slumped lower in the chair. Moments passed. I figured Liz probably owed us about seven bucks for the conversation so far. Finally, he said, “Looked like she was wearing a low-cut red satin dress until you got closer.” He sawed the karate-chop edge of his hand back and forth across his chest. “Whoever did her hacked them clean off at the bust line, then took their time stabbing her over and over, every stab missing the heart. She just kept on pumping the blood out. No defensive wounds, either.”

“She was a hooker, right?”

“A gal would have to be pretty damn well paid to let them do all that to her, wouldn’t you say? And no, we had no evidence she was a hooker, other than the fact she was working in a massage parlor at the time. No arrests, no traces of customer DNA in any of the usual hidey-holes. Strictly Hoosier hand jobs. She was no socialite, that’s for sure. They might have paid more attention to her if she had been. Take my advice: don’t get murdered if you’re poor. They’ll treat your case like spitting on the sidewalk.”

“Coroner did an autopsy, right?”

Diaz erupted with a dry, spasmodic wheeze of a laugh—the laugh of a man who’s been working way too many hours and has seen a few too many atrocities along the way.

I asked, “What’s funny?”

“I just thought of that crazy Lester,” Diaz said. “That was before he got himself elected coroner. He had his first gig as a night assistant down at the morgue back then. Had Tremayne’s corpse all hosed off and nicely laid out on the slab before I could even get there. Who knows how much evidence might have gone down the drain, you know? Anyway, once Lester knows he’s got me for an audience, he looks down right in the dead broad’s face—gets all intimate-like—and goes, ‘Hey, baby, I’d tell you a joke that’d make you laugh your tits off, but I see you already heard it.’”

“That’s an old one, John,” I said. “You’ve been working too hard.”

Diaz interrupted another dry laugh to say, “I haven’t told you everything.”

“Anyway, that case is closed by now, isn’t it?”

His stare unnerved me with its mood-swing of intensity. “That case will never be closed until I say it’s closed. There’s no statute of limitations on murder, Counselor. You should know that better than I do.”

“So what’s this secret clue you’ve been withholding all these years?”

I could sense it was against his better judgment to tell me, but he was proud of his thoroughness. Too proud, maybe.

“There was a holy card left at the scene. You know, the kind they hand out at Catholic funeral masses? Just a little paper holy card with a picture of Saint Agatha and a bloody fingerprint. Somebody thought they were funny, I guess.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t you ever read Lives of the Saints? Tradition says that’s how Saint Agatha was martyred—they amputated her breasts in a whorehouse when she wouldn’t renounce her faith and put out. Finally, they killed her by stabbing her a bunch of times. Looks like the killer is a psycho who hates Catholics, or maybe some smartass who wants us to think he’s a psycho who hates Catholics. Or, maybe a psycho who thinks he’s only pretending to be a psycho who hates Catholics. Psychos always think they’re putting everybody on by pretending to be nuts. Who the hell knows?” Diaz rubbed his eyes as if trying to eradicate the specter of Carla Tremayne bathed in her own blood. “I’m tired.”

“What about the fingerprint?”

“You realize you’re the only person outside of law enforcement, other than the killer, who knows this particular detail, don’t you, Ricky? So, if it gets out, it won’t be hard pinpointing the source of the leak. Might even be construed obstruction of justice.”

“My lips are sealed. It’s part of a privileged investigation as far as I’m concerned.”

“In that case, I haven’t found a match in what, almost twenty years now. It’s like he’s arrogant, you know, leaving a print like that just to taunt us, like he believes he’s invulnerable.”

“You keep saying ‘he,’” I said. “Why was Liz a suspect?”

“Because rumor has it her missing roommate and the victim were thinking of setting up housekeeping together back then,” Diaz said. “Apparently Carla Tremayne grew so tired of Cootie beating the shit out of her every time he got drunk she decided that she was sick of men altogether—wanted to try the ladies for a change. We found a mash note from Gwendace Fox in the victim’s effects. Witnesses had seen the two of them together. Gwendace was recruiting her; she’d spent a few nights off and on at Tremayne’s place. How’s that rhyme go? All night long, she was on her and off her?”

“It doesn’t work as well with two women,” I said.

“It works even less well with three,” Diaz said. “I figured three’s a crowd, and when I interviewed Liz, she made some ironic little comments trying to play me. Trouble was, those ironic little comments implicated her, or at least I thought they did at the time. Plus, of course, the murder itself bespeaks an inordinate amount of sexual rage, don’t you agree, Counselor?”

“So what exactly were these incriminatory little comments Liz made?”

“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “I interviewed her at her place. She claimed to have the flu, didn’t even want to let me in at first, then kept having to run to the john in mid-sentence to take another squirt. I make like I’m really looking at Gwendace, you know, to get her to talk. But when I ask her, nonchalant-like, where she happened to be the night of the murder, she says, in this phony Irish brogue, ‘I was home by me hearth, admoirin’ me holy cards.’ I wanted to slap the bracelets on her right there and then, but that damn fingerprint didn’t match hers. Finally, I filed the print in AFIS as a John Doe. We can do that now, make computer matches of unidentified fingerprints. It’s called a ‘cold hit.’ The world just keeps getting smaller nowadays, Ricky. We’ll find the bad guy. Just as soon as a set of prints with his name on them go into the system, the little electronic synapses will make their connections and he’ll have no rock he can crawl under. It’s one of our greatest tools.”

I thought of Artie. My eyes drifted to Artie’s ticket lying on my desktop. The appearance date was today. I realized I had ten minutes to be in court for Artie Tremayne. I stuck Artie’s ticket and my half-page of triple-spaced notes in a manila folder, grabbed a new yellow legal pad, threw the whole works into a flat briefcase, and signed out for court. It was time to go off and earn Mark Kane his three grand.

“Hey,” Diaz called out down the hall. “What about this Hare broad? She want candid videos of the two lezzies in fragrant delight, or just an address?”

“Use your own judgment.” I gave him an open-hand gesture. “And your usual discretion.”

“Just call me Allen Cunt.” Bug-eyed, he pantomimed cranking a movie camera while hanging his tongue out of one corner of his mouth.

“On second thought,” I told him, “better check with Liz first for details.”

 

 

Seeing Bobbi Cox, First Assistant State’s Attorney and head of the Felony Prosecutions Division in Courtroom 109, made my head ring with cognitive dissonance. Her name—and her avocation—was Cox, so the story goes, but she was also rumored to be State’s Attorney Peterson’s sub rosa girlfriend. Bobbi knew how to dress for success, right down to the tastefully understated Democratic campaign button on the lapel of her navy business suit. She stood only five feet one in heels, but her self-righteous attitude made her seem taller by inches.

I met her clear-eyed stare, then glanced down like I was guilty of something. Her skirt was short enough to showcase her gymnast’s legs. A few years ago, she’d been a contender for the American Olympic team until she’d pulled a hamstring on a triple dismount. It was then that she’d refocused her considerable ambition from athletic competitions to law school and high-profile prosecutions. All she had to show for the gymnastics were the legs, and I had to admit that they were a great legacy—a leg legacy. Now only twenty-eight, with an even more youthful look about her, she’d already prosecuted a string of successful murder trials.

“Waiting for Godot?” she asked.

“More like Bozo,” I said, still staring at her legs, visualizing those smooth, muscled calves cling-wrapped around Peterson’s sacroiliac.

“Like the shoes?”

“What?”

“I asked whether you like the shoes,” she said. “You seem to be staring at them. If you like, I could call your wife and tell her where I bought them.” I spotted a penny lying face down on the carpet, picked it up, and showed her Abe’s face. Nice save. I dropped it into my pants pocket. “That penny belongs to the county,” she said without smiling.

“I’ll drop it off with the bailiff on my way out,” I said, not knowing whether she was serious.

“I see you answered present for Arthur Tremayne, Jr.,” she said. “He here?” I gave the groundling section a bogus house-counting sweep for Bobbi’s benefit, but I already knew Artie was fashionably late. I did manage to spot three of our personal injury clients waiting for their criminal cases to be called. One of them even waved at me. “He a no-show?” Bobbi asked.

“First he’s a flasher, and now he’s a no-show,” I said, trying to get her to lighten up. It didn’t work.

“In here he’s a flasher,” she said. “Up on felony, he’s worse. A lot worse. He’s a no-show, all right. I’ve already managed to revoke his bond and get a bench warrant issued for him a half-hour ago. You don’t happen to know where we might find him, do you, Ricky? And by the way, will you be entering your appearance on his felonies?”

“What felonies? You sure we’re talking about the same guy?”

“I’ve got a few minutes before the ten o’clock show starts,” she said. “Come on up to my office. I want you to see something.”

 

 

Bobbi buzzed us into the State’s Attorney’s office and ushered me through the secretaries’ workstation warren until we reached her own cramped and windowless office in back. Files stratified everywhere prevented my even finding a chair, much less sitting down in one. Bobbi strode behind her own gunmetal-gray desk, did a variation on the iron cross between two stacks of banker’s boxes, and lowered herself with a bump into her chair. I wondered whether she ever came down that hard on Peterson.

It might not have been much, but this was one place where Bobbi presided over her domain. She leaned back and crossed her ankles on top of her desk. Her skirt rode up, defying me to steal a glance at where she’d so often straddled that gymnastics horse. I was about to score her a 10 in the private peep show event when she found what she’d been searching for and slid it across the desk at me. A PSI: presentence investigation report.

“They often call him Speedo, but his real name’s Arthur Tremayne, Jr.,” she said. “Public defender’s office has been representing him on this one. By not showing up today for his own sentencing, you could say he’s managed to flag himself as something of an asshole in our eyes.”

I scanned down the PSI under “educational background.” This particular Arthur Tremayne, Jr. had graduated with high honors from U of I Champaign with a double major: chemistry and folklore. It hardly seemed possible. Artie a folklorist? “You sure we’re talking about the same asshole, Bobbi? The Artie Tremayne I represent is a doofus, puts up drywall with his old man.”

“Keep reading,” Bobbi said. Her Artie’s “employment history” drifted without ambition through the fast-food industry and into the building trades, finally winding up at his father’s doorstep like a foundling. The age was right, too. Mistaken identity not an option. “How’d he get the public defender’s office?”

“My very question, Ricky. How did he afford a private attorney on a chickenshit misdemeanor and yet still qualify for a freebie lawyer on the agg sexual assaults and kidnapping? And how’d he get recogged on all those felonies? Do you suppose our boy has friends in high places?” Bobbi tossed the file midway across her desk in disgust. A black-and-white police photo enlargement slid partway out. It looked like a teenage girl stripped to the waist. One corner of the manila folder still modestly obscured the face, but I could see the attitude of mortification in the positions of her hands. Something like dark liquid had spattered over her breast buds in patterns. “Yeah, I’d like to ask him about that when they pick him up on the latest warrant. Right after I tell him that ‘blue-light special’ plea bargain we’d worked out with the PD is revoked.”

“What plea bargain?” I asked. The “aliases” section of the PSI caught my eye: “Speedo” and “the Candleman.”

“And why do they call him the Candleman?” I glanced once more at the picture on Bobbi’s desk. This time she caught me and slid it back inside the folder with a flick of her finger. She studied me like one of her files for the time it takes to say “guilty as charged.”

Reading further down the report, I caught disturbing references in the “psychological evaluation” section: sexual sadism, paraphilia, even vampirism. There’s a combination you don’t see every day. The county-appointed psychologist had also picked up on the fact that Artie used crystal, maybe because a drug screen of Artie’s blood sample contained enough methamphetamine to jump-start a catatonic army. Yes, Artie had a few problems, all right, but I told myself that morning that I wasn’t about to make them my own.

“He was ready to roll on some people we’ve been real anxious to meet,” she said at last. “At least we thought he was.”

“What people?”

“A sex-and-murder cult going back for years. We believe it involves some of our most prominent civic leaders. We think your boy is some kind of ‘lord high procurer’ for these degenerates, that he does his recruiting thing over the Internet and is extremely well paid for his services. I’ve prosecuted gang-bangers and multiple murderers—people who’d take a life the way you or I might take a drink—but this Artie thing scares even me. This is not some teenage Satanist gang knocking over gravestones or sacrificing cats. Ricky, have you ever heard of ritualized abuse of a child?”

I had to admit I hadn’t.

“Look it up sometime,” Bobbi said. “There is a statute on the books in Illinois making it a Class X felony to, among other things, have sex with or physically injure a child; or make the child drink blood, semen, or urine while conducting an occult ritual; or marry a child to a demon. Now, you know as well as I do that a statute is a response to a perceived need. Things like this really exist or there wouldn’t be a law against them. There’s no law saying a man can’t marry a tree, for instance, but there is a law against what Artie and his mover-and-shaker friends are up to. I intend to enforce that law and put away whoever’s responsible. I don’t care how important they think they are.”

Sizing up Bobbi copping her Democratic fund-raiser stance, I knew she’d come out foursquare against arborial matrimony, statute or no statute.

 

 

 

Chapter Seven – What the Cleaning Woman Saw

 

Misty Weegers had a whiplash, Ee-yi, Ee-yi, Oh. Actually she’d had three, but it wasn’t any of them that drew her and her mate, Celestal Weegers, to my office that day. By the time I returned from court, both waited for me with their best bus-station demeanor in the anteroom. I was late and had left the meeting with Bobbi bearing the realization that one of my clients was not only a pervert but also a vampire. Why were defense lawyers always the last to know?

Misty had that look of dustbowl desperation about her. Washed out at twenty, she let Celestal do all the talking while she offered a pale breast to quiet the infant she had swaddled in a worn blue blanket. She loosened her neck brace to look down into the baby’s face, teasing him with the nipple until he latched on. Tiny suckling noises seemed to draw what was left of the life out of her. I knew from working late that the two of them brought the baby with them in a carrier when they cleaned Mark Kane’s office suite twice a week. Twenty bucks a night and glad to get it. Did she take the baby with her on her thrice-weekly visits to Dr. Kokker’s office? For that matter, did he treat the baby, too?

Celestal Weegers believed in two things: chiropractic medicine and the Pentecostal Church. I could take dubious credit for turning him on to the former. A year or so ago, Misty had been injured in a Bi-State bus collision. Like most of our clients, she’d needed, or thought she’d needed, a doctor willing to wait for payment out of the insurance settlement. I forged a couple more links in the chain I’ll drag around for eternity by referring her to the Kokker Chiropractic Clinic. Even now, Celestal still took every opportunity to witness to me, with revival-meeting intensity, about the wonders of chiropractics. I always listened to him with the same feigned interest that I showed every time he witnessed to me about his church, staring into his wide-open, fanatic eyes. Dark sideburn scimitars framed his narrow, hollow-cheeked face. Today, though, it didn’t take Celestal long to get to the point. Some tomb robber had opened his daddy’s grave and “heistesed” his daddy’s earthly remains.

Motive was a mystery. Pete Weegers had been no King Tut when he was alive, and I was reasonably sure he hadn’t improved with age. He’d been my first worker’s comp client until an insurance company killed him off trying to cut its losses.

Twenty years working at the Faithful Friend Dog Food Company didn’t buy much, and when Pete had blown a disc lifting a hundred pounds of the stuff, he could no longer work at all. The comp insurer’s first brainstorm was to starve him to death by holding out on his disability payments. When that hadn’t worked, they drove him to suicide. At least, that was the argument I had offered—unsuccessfully, as it turned out—before the Illinois Industrial Commission. It was Celestal who, at the age of eight, had found Pete’s lifeless body dangling from a roof beam in the shed. Maybe it was only my imagination, but I thought I could still see the reflection of it every time I looked him in the eye.

“What’s a case like this usually worth?” Celestal inquired. It was a question I heard on a daily basis, but this time I was taken aback.

“Hold on there, Celestal. A case like what? You think a case like this comes along every day?”

“I sure hope not,” Misty said, her voice trailing off so that she barely got it out. Celestal glared at her for the interruption.

“I’ll tell you right now,” I went on, “the cemetery association will deny liability. This is a criminal act by a third party. They’re not responsible.”

“Who said anything about the cemetery association?” Celestal said. His eyes might have been staring out through holes cut in a sheet. For the first time that day, I felt the fear that he and Misty might, as Mark Kane would put it, yank their cases—her injury and his loss of consortium. I’d be called on the carpet to justify insulting the Weegers enough for them to wrench their cases and their one-third contingent fees from Mark Kane’s steely grasp.

“You mean sue the perpetrators?” I said in what I hoped was a soothing voice. “They haven’t even been identified, have they?”

“Mr. Galeer, everybody knows who’s doing this.” Celestal resisted my every attempt to get him to drop the backwoods formality and call me Ricky.

“So tell me.”

“Don’t you read the paper, Mr. Galeer? It’s that bunch a devil-worshippers over yonder in Missourah. Ain’t it obvious? Daddy was a suicide. They want his body to use in some kind of desolating sacrilege.”

“Celestal, go to the police if you know something. As a private practice law firm, we can’t help you at all with this until somebody has actually been charged with a crime.” I left out the part about our not being the least bit interested even then.

“You know how it goes, Mr. Galeer. Daddy was a poor man. We’re all just poor country folk. The police reckon we’re no ‘count. They won’t do nothing, just you wait.” Celestal set his jaw. Misty pursed her lips, nodding in mute agreement. They both looked at me for help.

In my heart, I always knew I owed some cosmic debt to these people. I hadn’t exactly mishandled Pete’s case, but I’d let it slide, overburdened by the workload of a junior associate, never suspecting the psychic torment my neglect would bring Pete and his family. Too long waiting for the work comp disability checks to start, too much intractable pain, and too few answers must have finally pushed Pete over the edge. I came back from a deposition to find Pete’s brand-new widow and his whole fatherless brood waiting for me in the lobby with the news.

One thing led to another. Alcoholic blackouts astonish the mind, even years later. My drinking had telescoped. I couldn’t seem to enjoy myself for an evening without losing a friend or becoming unwelcome at one club or another.

One sympathetic colleague—a refugee from a chemical dependency of his own—started me going to meetings. The same colleague recognized my self-destructive implosion for what it was: self-pity. He earned my eternal gratitude by introducing me to one of the parishioners in his church. She turned out to be my Diane.

I got rid of the Weegers after enduring another of Celestal’s “five-minutes-to-live-bys,” and hustled to get across town for depositions. They went until six, when I dragged back to the office wearing my tension headache like a neck brace of my own. I dumped my briefcase and slid open my lap drawer, looking for a post-it note to tell my secretary I’d be doing a motion to limit discovery. Then I made a discovery of my own, Artie’s zip-lock bag half-filled with Crankenstein.

I took down my framed law license, lay it on my desk, used the glass and one of my deactivated credit cards to make two lines, and then vacuumed up first one, then the other, line. My nostril burned like I’d just inhaled half a swimming pool worth of chlorine. An inopportune moment later, my office door swung open. Through watering eyes I saw Janis enter.

“Inspecting your license? Hasn’t expired, has it?” she asked, hesitating in my doorway before entering. She wore a black, tailored wool suit and a white blouse with a high, lacy collar.

I slammed my lap drawer shut.

“Looks like you have a heavy date tonight, Ricky.” She held steady eye contact. “I mean, I’ve checked your calendar. You’re having dinner tonight with Dr. and Mrs. Hairless Krishna.”

“Is that tonight already?” I remained standing. Janis slid silent as a cat into the nearest of the client’s chairs facing my desk, ladylike, knees pressed together and to one side, ankles crossed. I stood there like a dummy, ogling her.

“You still have plenty of time. They’re not expecting you until eight o’clock.”

Purple highlights in Janis’s raven hair set off her translucent complexion, smooth as candle wax yet radiantly alive. Her breasts seemed to strain against the conservative bonds of the suit and the pure white of her blouse. Her calf muscles, defined by years of faithful exertion at the health club, called out for the massage of my exploring fingers. I felt weak in the legs, so I sat on the corner of my desk and pretended to listen while she vented about Mad’s rebelliousness—her running with a wild crowd, sneaking out to after-hours clubs—and her consequential grounding. Mad’s isolation in her room for hours, with only her laptop for company. Hypnotized by its glow, Mad’s fingers tapping away on the keyboard like wind-whipped rain. The mundane give-and-take of the conversation seemed unbearably erotic to me in my drug-manic state. Yet I persisted in an everyday conversational tone, wondering where my excitement would take both of us.

“Well, Mad’s been a good baby-sitter for us,” I said, by now visibly aroused. A vein in my temple began to leap and jump to the point I thought Janis must be able to see it herself.

“I’m sorry, am I making you late? You probably want to go pick up your wife and go to his house, don’t you? I just needed a shoulder to cry on, I guess.” Janis sighed, circled my desk to where I was seated, and stood over me. I seized the soft flesh of her shoulders and drew her close enough to kiss.

The Crankenstein kicked in. My knees began to quiver then jerked in big, uncontrollable, electric-chair spasms. My chest was pounding, and I couldn’t catch my breath. A rashlike burning sensation climbed up my neck and beat into both temples.

Janis said, “Let me get the lights.” She threw the wall switch, plunging the office into near-darkness, then returned to kneel on the carpet in front of me like a shoe salesclerk. She slipped off her white headband, unloosing the jet-black wimple of her hair, then undid the top button of her tailored blouse, continuing to undress until she knelt there topless.

Subdued lights from the courthouse across the square glowed through smoky glass, illuminating the silhouettes of two or three cleaning people laboring like indentured ghosts. I willed these shades to look up from their toil and see us together, but none did. I sat hypnotized by the rhythmic bobbing of Janis’s head, her eyes on me like a snake’s watching the snake charmer. But who was charming whom? And hers weren’t a snake’s eyes; they were the deep, crisp blue of a cloudless sky, their whites clear and cool as milk.

The lights of the traffic glided past and circled around the fountain. I asked myself why I should not enjoy tonight’s experience to the fullest? I had spent the better part of the past fourteen years, once the financial drain of home and family set in, practicing a dismal alchemy, trying to transform one dollar into three on a bimonthly basis—dreading every payday and the end of every month that passed by wasted. Why shouldn’t I savor some purloined pleasure while my blood was high?

Janis increased her tempo to a jazzercise beat. With her right hand she reached up and caressed the side of my neck below the ear.

I must have swooned.

Janis slapped me awake, two times hard across the face, then kissed me hard. The taste was all laundry starch and ammonia as she swabbed her tongue against mine. “I wanted you to be awake for that,” she said, her tone businesslike but laced with contempt. “Why don’t you give your wife a great big kiss for me when you go home to her? While you’re at it, give Hairless one, too.”

I blinked at her nude torso then focused on her familiar mole, a falling five-pointed star dwarfed by the dark full moon of her areola in the firmament of her right breast. By some remarkable coincidence, Sandra had a similar mole in the same location.

And then there was the bright and dangling medallion she always wore suspended on a delicate gold chain around her neck. Sandra wore its twin. My eyes had finally adjusted to the near-darkness. A single ray of moonlight shining from the square through a crevice in the drapes caught and illuminated the heavy medallion. I reached for it. Tiny ruby chips formed the letters CS in the loops of an infinity symbol. Janis gently removed it from my hand, sliding it along its chain until it hung behind her back.

“Are you ever going to tell me what it means?” I asked.

She gave me a demure look not unlike the one I’d seen on Sandra that time in the Kokker Clinic and slipped back into her bra.

Janis was as close-mouthed as Sandra had been about the meaning of the necklace. I finally concluded that perhaps Kokker was handing them out to his special friends and that both women were embarrassed about it somehow. I remained baffled by what the letters meant, though. Maybe it was an advertising gimmick—the abbreviation for ‘chiropractic secrets.’ Mark Kane’s office had once represented the parents of a high school girl threatened with expulsion for wearing a CS insignia on her high school jacket, arguing unsuccessfully before the school board that the letters meant “college sweetheart.” Use your imagination.

“What are you going to tell your little missus about tonight, Ricky?”

“What?”

“Are you going to tell her about us at last?”

The canary-mode telephone ring might as well have been the caw of a raven. I picked up, irritated. “Wrong number,” I snarled into the phone.

“Ricky? Honey, is that you?” Diane’s voice, plaintive and urgent.

I clamped my hand over the receiver. “It’s my wife. Oh, jeez! I forgot! What time is it?” What the United States Supreme Court refers to as “the leer of the sensualist” played across Janis’s face. She cupped my balls in her hand as if to weigh them like Lady Liberty’s scales.

“It’s nearly seven-thirty,” Diane said. “Do you want me to call the Kokkers and say we’ll be a little late? How long does it take to get there?”

“Forty-five minutes or less in light traffic,” I said. Janis pressed herself against me, smiling full in my face. I swallowed. Janis’s eyes mesmerized me. Her musky perfumed redolence fought to overpower my reason.

“You dressed?” I managed to get out, my voice hoarse with renewed lust.

“Of course I’m dressed. I’ve been sitting here for at least fifteen minutes making girl talk with Madeleine.”

“Madeleine?” The moment I uttered that name, Janis froze.

“Madeleine Mezzanotte,” Diane said. “Janis’s daughter. You know, Janis from the office? Our regular sitter won’t come out on a weeknight. I was lucky to get Mad on such short notice. She forgot her laptop; I had to agree to let her use our computer to do her homework. Hurry home, hon. We’re into her for something like ten dollars already.”

“Sorry, honey. I’m on my way.”

“Love you.”

“Me, too.” I hung up, tortured—or exhilarated—like a murderer at the scene of the crime.

“Me, too,” Janis parroted. “You and your honey off to Kokker’s house while Mad looks after your kiddies? I guess I’m a pleasant enough diversion to pass the time, but it’s not every day one receives a dinner invitation from Hairless Krishna and his Blonde Goddess, is it?”

“You’re the one who offered to do that in the first place,” I bleated like an adolescent as I fumbled for my clothes.

“That? Let me ask you something. Your little wifey-poo ever do that for you?”

“Leave Diane out of this.”

“You certainly have,” Janis said. The remark wounded me and she saw it. She seemed to soften for an instant, then said, “Don’t trouble yourself, Ricky. I guess there is a kind of crazy symmetry in all this. If I’ve managed to hold you up for an hour or so, with Mad’s meter running, that’s another few bucks in the till going toward her college fund. My evening’s attempt to entertain you hasn’t gone totally unrewarded.” She’d said it all without raising her voice. “I mean, one unfamiliar with the players might even have mistaken us for lovers.”

“Is it that obvious?”

“Don’t lose your confidence, Ricky. Your secret’s safe, at least for now. You’d pass without objection in polite society. Too bad you’re not liable to be mixing in any polite society tonight.” Janis sat in my chair, crossed her legs and studied me, as if debating whether to say more.

I was intrigued. “What exactly do you mean, Janis? And why do you hate Kokker and his wife so much? What’d they ever do to you? I’m curious.”

She folded her arms and regarded me. Before speaking another word, she rose and walked to the full-length window I’d been awarded in lieu of an annual raise. She opened the drapes of the dark office and stood there staring out over the square, communing with the night. The aurora of reflected traffic lights played against the contours of her classic cantilevered brassiere, which was all she was wearing on top. I moved to stand behind her and caress her shoulders.

“He has something of mine,” she began. She peered down at the drained and empty fountain as though it were a witches’ cauldron. Her voice became dreamlike, fit for an incantation. “Maybe there is something you can do for me after all.” She brightened. “I know! How would you like to perform a quest for me? A quest like in olden days to win a fair lady’s heart? You’ve already enjoyed her special favors.” She touched my cheek and kissed me with a new tenderness. “I’ll tell you a bedtime story that’s no fairy tale,” she said. “Once upon a time, many years ago, I attended law school at Saint Louis University. Did you even know I’d gone to law school, Ricky?”

In fact, I hadn’t known, but this answered a lot of questions about Janis’s breadth of legal knowledge, her ease around legal concepts and terminology. It was Mark Kane’s way of hiring a lawyer without having to pay the going rate for one. “What happened?”

“You’re getting ahead of the story. My education was fast-forwarding into a bright professional future. School came easily to me, maybe too easily. I’d zapped through college in under a year and had started first year law. My career path didn’t allow for a full-time job, and everything part-time was either minimum wage or taken. Except one job. So I did a stupid thing.”

“Which was?”

“I went to work for Hairless Krishna and his mother, Old Lady Kokker. At that time they were co-proprietors of a stately pleasure dome known as the Salome Spa, nestled in an unassuming strip mall outside of Collinsville. No offense, but maybe you remember the place. It was conveniently located right next to Kokker’s first quackopractic clinic.”

I shrugged. For years I had been complimenting myself on being the only man desirable enough to seduce a devout Catholic woman like Janis and entice her out of a life of near-celibacy. And then despite myself I remembered Carla Tremayne. Janis seemed to read my thoughts. “Yeah, that’s right. It was that same joint where Carla was murdered, poor thing. Not too many people know that Carla and I had worked together the night before her death. It sounds strange to say it now, but the luckiest thing that ever happened to me was getting busted the night before she died. I guess you could say it ended my life plans and saved my life at the same time. I quit the parlor the same night John Diaz arrested me, and I never went back. The next night wasn’t supposed to be Carla’s shift, you see. She was filling in for me the night she died.”

I couldn’t see well enough in the dimness to discern tears, but Janis held herself so quietly for so long it couldn’t have been anything else. I took her hand in mine as though it were a baby bird fallen from the nest. She had opened up her most deeply guarded secrets to me and had exposed her damaged soul for my view. I asked myself how I could ever say “no” to any request of hers now.

“How many times I dirtied my hands in that place,” Janis shuddered. “It made me feel unclean, like an undertaker, only worse—having to milk every stiff that stopped by. Sanitary bloodletting, that’s all it was.”

“So why not quit?”

“Easy for you to say. I guess I just couldn’t turn down the money, if you want the truth. I told myself it was no worse than wiping and washing old men’s asses for three thirty-five an hour in some nursing home. At the massage parlor they paid tips of maybe fifty dollars a pop for the privilege to watch my face while I caught their nastiness in my hand. It was like touching an oozing bedsore with my bare skin, only I had to pretend the warm pus turned me on, that I got off whenever I popped another one. There was this endless blushing procession of horny husbands and leering drunks, too many to count, each one ready to tip me the week’s grocery money just to hear me ooh and aah over how big and hard he was, how his wife or his girlfriend didn’t know how lucky she was. Well, you’ve been to those places, I’m sure.”

I shook my head no, but I don’t think she believed me.

“You remember fungible goods from Commercial Law, Ricky? I never got past the first year curriculum, but I can still remember the definition of fungible goods: ‘goods of which any unit is, by nature or usage of trade, the equivalent of any other like unit.’ Take it from a girl who’s spent some time in the trade, Ricky, the penis starts to look like a fungible good real fast once you’ve pulled a double shift at the Salome Spa.

“They had black light in the place, too, to make the black velvet nude bimbo paintings light up. If I got my hands close enough to it, the fresh ooze would glow a kind of sickly pale, firefly green. Some of my regulars used to get off on that, seeing their own glowing away all over my hands like leprosy.” She quivered with seeming revulsion at the memory.

“Diaz wound up arresting you?”

“Yeah, John entrapped me, pure and simple. You could tell he was shy about even undressing in front of me, so of course I made him strip and shower while I watched. That’s usually how you can separate the cops from the creeps but not always. Let me tell you, John’s always been big in more ways than one.”

“I think he was married at the time.”

“Yeah, I guess she hadn’t gotten around to dying yet. Anyway, I don’t think he’d ever been on a waterbed before. I even had to ask him to turn over. Most of the stiffs would be laid flat on their backs with their legs spread wide and their dicks waving in the breeze before I ever walked into the room. With John, I remember I made a big deal out of admiring his thing, like it was this huge hothouse orchid he’d brought me to wear to the prom. He turned red as fire, but kept asking, you know, speaking his little entrapment piece. Finally, to get him to clam up and quit embarrassing both of us, I decided to make him a vague promise and charge him top dollar. I said something like, ‘Baby, slip me a hundred and I’ll give you the thrill of your life.’ Slam, bam, boom—I’m busted. Offer of sex for money. Moral turpitude. Forget about qualifying for a law license anywhere.”

“So how did you and John get together?”

Her expression darkened. “Who says we ever did? Oh, John was sweet and all, even offering to ‘lose’ my fingerprints and records so they wouldn’t go into any national law enforcement databases, but I couldn’t let him endanger his own career that way. To tell you the truth, when Kokker offered to get me this other position—the one with Mark Kane—I leaped at the opportunity. You don’t have to pass a criminal background check to work as a paralegal in this state. Plus, I think I’ve done okay at it.”

“Sounds like Kokker did you a favor, then.”

“Hairless never did anyone a favor without getting something in return.”

“Such as?”

Janis sighed as though she’d held in all her regrets for the past twenty years like spirits of the dead and was only now exorcising them.

“Touch can corrupt. Touch can be morally corrosive, more so than any of the other four senses. I thought what I’d had to touch at the Salome Spa was corrupting enough, until Kokker had me touch something of his.”

“What was it?”

“Something to corrupt the blood,” she said. “A kind of antique dagger, a key missing piece of evidence in an old unsolved murder. Only he tricked me into touching it. Now my fingerprints are on it, hidden away somewhere in his mansion under lock and key.” She looked away toward the west, then turned to me, eyes imploring, and said, “There. Now you know my deepest and darkest secret: I’m innocent.”

“But what does he want in exchange for not framing you?”

“Kokker delights in capturing others’ secrets and keeping them just out of their reach. He loves making people go through private hell when they can’t get those damning secrets back. By now, he’s probably collected a veritable pervert’s museum of personal defilements, spilled blood, and wayward seed. He’s the hater of men’s souls.”

“Come on, Janis,” I said. “He’s a chiropractor, not the devil.” But Janis didn’t seem too sure.

I crystal-gazed into the deep blue of her eyes, now dark as midnight tide pools, and took both of her hands in mine, wanting to exorcise all the coarseness—all the fear men’s uses had instilled in her.

“I’ll take a look around,” I said. “If the knife’s there, I’ll find it.”

Janis hugged me so tightly I couldn’t breathe, let alone shrug, when she said, “You’d do that for me?”

“I’d do anything for you, Janis. All you have to do is ask.”

“I love you, Ricky. I think I’ve always loved you.” She laughed a sobbing, relieved kind of laugh and kissed me once again. There were no tears.

“But what exactly am I looking for?”

“You’ll know it when you hold it in your hand,” she said. “It’s a dagger, impossibly old, and encrusted with old blood. Human blood.”

“I’ll try to find it, but don’t you think it would make it easier if maybe I knew where to look?”

“Keep your third eye open, Ricky. Remember everything I’ve told you tonight. Write it on the insides of your eyelids, if you have to.” The phone chirped, making me start. It was Diane again.

“Honey, what’s going on? What are you still doing at the office?”

“Getting a few last-minute things squared away. I’m done now, though, just setting the security system.”

“Do you know how to get hold of Janis?”

At the sound of her name from Diane’s lips, the speed in my system made my heart jump and race like a lizard running for cover. “Why?”

“Why? Because Madeleine may be stuck here after midnight now and I want to make sure I don’t do anything to worry her mother, that’s why. I need to let Janis know where her daughter is. Nobody answers her home or her cell phone. Mad thinks she may be working late, too. She isn’t there, is she?”

“No,” I said. “Keep trying. I’ll be home soon.”

“What’s up her twat?” Janis asked after Diane had hung up again.

“Madeleine being out past midnight on a school night,” I said. “Diane wants to check with you about it, so you’d better turn on your cell phone and play innocent.”

Janis’s eyes narrowed to lustful slits.

“Fine by me,” she said, “as long as you’re the one who drives Mad back home tonight. Alone. With the dagger.”

 

 

 

Chapter Eight – Bitch Lips

 

On my return home, I smelled fresh popcorn and heard female voices. I walked the gauntlet of Eastern Orthodox icons that lined the hallway off our foyer. St. Seraphim of Sarov, the Passion-Bearers Boris and Gleb, St. Sergius of Radonezh, St. Alexander Nevsky, and a host of others glared down at me, their dour Russian faces reproaching my every hidden and unconfessed sin. Their knowing eyes followed my uneasy progress toward the family room. Would I appear a guilt-ignited living torch to Diane’s all-seeing eyes? Down the hall, I heard Diane asking Madeleine something about her lipstick shade.

It was hard to believe that at eighteen Madeleine Mezzanotte was the same studious adolescent who attended a private Catholic girls’ school. She had dressed herself for a burial. The Goth trappings could have passed for a Halloween costume. She was festooned with enough piercing hardware to set off the courthouse metal detector. Stainless steel studs glimmered from her nostrils and eyebrows. Threadlike hoops stitched her earlobes and glinted in the light, calling to mind the razor wire on top of the perimeter fences at a maximum security penitentiary. Not to mention a tongue spike, visible only when she laughed or stuck her tongue out, as she was doing now, flicking it out through blue-black lip gloss and evoking squeals from the girls every time they caught a glimpse of it. She had an unnerving habit of running it back and forth behind her teeth with her lips half-open, producing a dull rattling sound like dead men’s bones.

Janis had told me about Samael, Mad’s pet snake, and his expensive diet of live, white mice. It was easy to picture Madeleine caressing the snake, even secreting him in her clothing or sharing her bed with him at night. I didn’t think I’d tell Diane about the snake or his appetites.

A striking blond woman, poured into a high-necked gown beaded with points of starlight, sat with her back to me, facing Madeleine. “It looks like a dog’s lips, see?” Mad was saying. “It’s called Bitch Lips.” Mad had her fingernails lacquered a coppery brown. It was only when you looked closer that you saw designs that looked like cockroaches.

“Why would you want to look like a female dog, Mad?” It was Diane’s voice coming from the blond woman. For a second or two, I feared the Crankenstein might be giving me hallucinations.

“It’s how you can tell if a guy really likes you, because when he tries to kiss you, he’s kissing dog lips, see?”

The blond woman flapped her wrist, touching manicured fingertips to her chest in a gesture of social incredulity that was pure Diane. In fact, I finally realized that it was Diane, her hair dyed Sandra Kokker-platinum blond and piled atop her head in a high-fashion coiffure.

The girls spotted me hesitating in the archway door and came running. “Mommy looks like a movie star, and I saw her first,” Stacie cried.

“Did not! I saw her first. I was first one off the bus,” Teeta yelled.

“Mad has a thing stuck in her tongue,” Wolf observed soberly.

Diane turned to face me with the shy anticipation of a first date. There’s something about the deliberate incongruity of ash-blond hair over a brunette complexion that has always turned me on. Maybe it goes all the way back to the early sixties, when brunettes dyed blond were the forbidden fruit. My stepfather of the moment ran away with one. Don’t feel bad for my mother, though. She wasted no time finding another man to fill his shoes—one who didn’t mind beating her to a pulp every time he got drunk, whether she had it coming or not.

“Do you like it?” Diane asked. She stood and twirled like a ballerina. Her hair had been swirled and wrapped into a turban, except for ringlets that spiraled down both temples like earrings. She wore an antique aigrette set off with blood-red rubies. I was amazed she’d taken it out of the velvet-lined case. It was one of her luckiest finds, purchased for a tiny fraction of its worth at an under-advertised estate sale. Tonight Diane was off the charts on the glam-o-meter.

When I didn’t respond right away, she spoke to me again in a quietly reproving tone. “Your aura is red as fire, Ricky. What happened?”

I shrugged. “Traffic.”

She seemed to buy it.

“Are you psychic, Mrs. Galeer?” Mad enthused. “Me too, I think. It’s like I’ve got the power, but I don’t know what to do with it. Could you maybe teach me?”

“You mustn’t dwell on things like that, Mad,” Diane told her in a motherly tone. “The devil can come to us in a pleasing shape. He tempts us to invite him in. He appeals to our vanity when he offers us the prospect of possessing supernatural powers. It’s all vanity because it serves no useful purpose; no good can ever come of it. These powers are not a gift from God. They’re more of a Pandora’s box from the Evil One.” I could tell the Sunday school lesson was being wasted on Madeleine.

The Crankenstein had shifted me into hyper drive. There were worms crawling around under my eyelids. I had the sudden urge to move furniture around and vacuum the entire house—a feverish early spring cleaning before dinner.

“Sit down, Ricky. You’re making me nervous,” Diane said, watching me. I must have seemed a macarena of tics and starts by then. I thought to sit down on the couch beside Madeleine, but as soon as I took a step, Vlad rubbed up against my pant leg, smoothing his grizzled whiskers. I tried taking another step, and he did it again. It was his “feed me” signal.

“You better watch out, Mr. Galeer,” Mad singsonged. “A black cat just crossed your path. Tonight’s an occult holiday, too.”

Preoccupied with the state of the cat’s digestion, Diane seemed not to have heard her. “Vlad, you pig,” she cooed, “you just ate.” But soon Vlad’s stares got to be too much for her. “I give up,” she said. “Keep Mad company for me, hon. I’ll only be a second.” She hurried into the kitchen. Vlad sprang to attention a moment later, galvanized by the electric whine of the can opener.

I glanced at the titles of the stack of textbooks that separated Madeleine from me on the couch. English literature, computers, and religion studies dominated. “What did you mean just now about an ‘occult holiday’?”

Mad grabbed the top book off the pile and thumbed through it until she found the section she wanted. “The Eve of St. Agnes,” she said. “A pure-hearted maiden who stays up late saying her prayers tonight will be rewarded with a vision of her future husband. Better than computer dating, huh? She’s gotta be a virgin, though.”

“You believe that stuff, Mad?”

“What’s the matter? You don’t think I qualify?”

“I never said that.”

She did the saber-rattling thing against her front teeth again. “Don’t worry, Mr. Galeer. The weeping mother of the bride won’t get screwed out of seeing her darling daughter dump off a bunch of roses at the feet of the Virgin Mary when the big day arrives at last. I’m still pure, in case anybody’s interested. It’s, like, ‘duh rigueur’ for us good little ‘Cat Lick’ girls. Bizarre and primitive custom, though, don’t you think?”

“What do you mean?”

“Are you kidding me? The thing with the roses. The blushing bride standing up in front of everybody at church and announcing, ‘Check me out, dudes, I saved it for marriage. Cherry nolo busto. You could play a snare drum solo on this here hymen.’”

I started to get a little nervous right then about Madeleine watching our kids, but we were already late for dinner. Diane was still attending to the cat’s appetite. I tried one more question. “What else does Saint Agnes’ Eve mean, Mad? You weren’t talking about any romantic poem a moment ago when you mentioned the occult.”

“You run across a lot of different things online, that’s all. Assholes pitching their weird ideas.”

“Example?”

“Well, for instance, you take grave dirt of an unbaptized dead baby—”

Diane rushed into the room, shaking anxiety from her hands. I helped her on with her coat, wanting to call the whole evening off—make some excuse to get Mad out of the house and drive her over to Janis’s. But I knew Diane was excited to go. She would probably never forgive me if we cancelled, and would no doubt refuse to believe my explanation of being apprehensive about the babysitter. So we descended the porch steps leading from the back door to the driveway. The raccoons had tipped over one of the garbage cans, strewing trash all around.

“Poor babies,” Diane cooed. “They must be hungry.”

“You’re too good to be true, darling,” I said. But back we went into the kitchen. Diane bent at the waist to pick up Vlad’s leftovers for the raccoons. When she tried to straighten up, she winced and grabbed the edge of the sink. I saw the muscles in her jaw clench. The paper plate dropped from her hand and splattered liver-and-entrails-side-down onto the tile floor.

“Hon, what’s wrong?”

“Back caught,” she whispered, breathless from the pain.

“Come and lie down,” I said. “We’re staying home.”

“I’m all right, Ricky. Give me a few seconds, okay? I pulled a muscle the other day helping them move that big wardrobe—you know, the one Sandra bought.”

“Darling, why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

“I didn’t want to worry you. It’s really nothing.”

I wanted to believe her. She winced once more getting into the car, and yet again when she tried to extend her legs in front of her. She spent the rest of the trip with her feet drawn up as far as possible and her lower back twisted to one side—smiling tightly and denying any pain whenever I asked.

I couldn’t help thinking that, with Diane red-shirted, it was time to try out some fresh talent on the mound.

 

 

 

Chapter Nine – The Taste of Sandra

 

It took about forty minutes to get there in light evening traffic. I found the front gate to Kokker’s estate open this time. We peered through the blow-by oil film on the windshield—the legacy of the smoking manifold—as the car meandered down the stately wooded lane. Glancing to my right through the moonlit leafless grove, I thought I caught the outline of a circular structure angled like the real Stonehenge. Probably a rock garden grotto commissioned by someone with more money than brains.

Fifty thousand dollars doesn’t go as far as it used to. Despite Diane’s talk of being in the clear now, our debt had swallowed Sandra’s money up like a black hole. Setting aside enough to cover income and sales taxes, we’d paid off the note cosigned by Diane’s parents and cleaned up a few department store charge cards. That put Diane’s business in the black—barely—but didn’t leave enough to pay down any of the five major credit cards. There hadn’t been enough left for a down payment on another car, either, and our bad credit made affordable financing hard to come by.

I know it’s vulgar to talk about money, but Kokker obviously had it and didn’t mind spending it. The house, luminous in the cold white floodlights, looked like something you only see in movies.

I opened the passenger door for Diane. She took my hand and stepped from the car with the fluid grace of a woman born to this life. All pain seemed to have fled away. The unnatural glow of the floodlights reflected across the snowy ground and caught the azure of her eyes as she gazed up at the house and breathed in the January air. She looked like the lady of the manor returning home after the Grand Tour.

There was no sign of the slick black stain my engine had dripped onto the white flagstone courtyard during my last visit. Kokker must have sent the servants out with some oil-soaker. We stood under the halogen lights of the portico while I rang the bell. Diane shivered with excitement. The immense double doors—enclosed under a single keystone arch that reminded me of a castle—flung open almost immediately, and Sandra appeared wearing a little black cocktail dress. “Hieeee!” she screamed with all the reserve of a quiz-show contestant who’d just won the car.

“Hieeee, Sandy,” Diane responded with the same emotional pitch. They hugged each other like two long-lost sorority sisters.

“What kept you, Di? We thought Ricky must have pulled you over somewhere for a quick boink.” Sandra hesitated, deadpanned, then laughed boisterously, trying to bring me into it. The perfect hostess.

“You’ve met Ricky, I think,” Diane said, ebullient and breathless.

Sandra turned to face me, then took one giant step inside my comfort zone. “Hey, big guy. Long time, no see.”

She kissed me on the lips, her tongue darting for an entrance. I kept my eyes open. Sandra’s diamond earrings looked like swords upraised for battle. The taste of Sandra was all baking soda and tart lemon, effervescent as her personality. I flashed on the men she had lately entertained on video—putting the “ho spit” back in hospitality—and shuddered involuntarily. She probably thought it was from pleasure.

We could see our breaths in the winter air when she finally slipped from my tentative embrace, saying, “Watch the hands, Ricky.” She waited for my wounded expression, then brayed with laughter. The sleek, short dress fit her tight as leather, and was so low-cut you couldn’t properly explain yourself if you broke eye contact with her.

“Here, let me look at you in chandelier light,” Sandra said to Diane after shooing us inside. “Don’t you just love her new hair color, Ricky? Hair as beautiful as Diane’s should always be seen in chandelier light, don’t you think?” She stood facing Diane in the immense foyer, one hand on Diane’s shoulder. “Turn around,” she said, “slowly, so I can see you and get the full effect.” When she had Diane at one-hundred-eighty degrees, Sandra surreptitiously reached down and touched me between the legs with a randiness that could not have been accidental. I made a furtive scan of the vast room facing Diane, looking for mirrors, but saw none. “Very impressive,” said Sandra. “I like it.”

“Thank you.” Diane did a fake curtsy, her back still to us. I stepped away, but only after Sandra quit what she was doing and gave me a love tap.

“I love that bird thing, too,” Sandra remarked after Diane had completed a full circle. “Where can I get my hands on one like it?”

“It’s an aigrette,” Diane said. “One of a kind. An antique.”

“Di, I haven’t met the old bird yet that’s one of a kind. Here’s living proof.”

“Good evening and welcome!” Dr. Kokker’s velvety Liberace voice greeted us. He appeared from around a corner, a homunculus in a burgundy smoking jacket and tuxedo pants. He wore some kind of black leather slip-ons. Had his silent approach shown him an eyeful?

Sandra said, “Di was just modeling her new look for us, Kirk.”

“Oh, please, a repeat performance?” Kokker said. “Won’t you indulge me, just this once?” He stood next to me, his arm around my shoulder in a brotherly attitude.

“Better do it for him, Di,” Sandra said. “I hate when he begs.” So Diane began her slow pirouette again. This time when she hit six o’clock, Kokker reached over and groped me himself. I felt his nimble fingers before I bucked and staggered away, astonished.

Diane must have heard me. She spun around. “Ricky, are you all right?”

“Your husband was just allowing me to demonstrate the secret chiropractic handshake,” Kokker said amiably. Diane shrugged with a perplexed smile. “He’s a fortunate man, you husband,” Kokker went on. “You’re even lovelier than I imagined. Tell me, was the change in hair color my dear wife’s suggestion?”

“You’re very kind,” Diane said. “Indirectly, yes, I guess you could say so. I saw how beautiful Sandy looked in long platinum hair, and I figured it was about time for a change, so why not?”

“It was an impulse, then? An irresistible impulse to make yourself irresistible?” Kokker was known for his ability to schmooze his patients—and their lawyers—and his famous bedside manner was showing. He had Diane going. Her complexion glowed hot pink, set off against her corn-silk hair and the ruby aigrette.

“I love your shoes,” she said.

“Old Twinkle Toes is wearing his glass slippers,” Sandra said. “Don’t get him started.” Kokker shot her a reproving glance and said, “They’re Italian. Ruffinos. Men’s lounging slippers. A joy to the feet. You must try them on, Ricky. I’d say you take a nine D? That’s what I wear as well.” The chiropractor’s discerning eye had pinpointed my shoe size exactly. He’d probably already mentally measured Diane’s cup size, too.

“No, really. I couldn’t.”

“Nonsense. I insist. You and I have known each other for years, Ricky. I refuse to countenance this newfound shyness.”

“What’s the matter, Ricky? Foot odor?” Sandra chimed in. “His or yours?”

“Try them on, honey,” Diane said, nudging me. I’d never been so damned embarrassed since I was a child and my mother took me to buy school shoes. I realized the Crankenstein must be aggravating my irrational nervousness. The his and hers south-of-the-border handshakes hadn’t helped, either. I conceded defeat. Kokker slipped the Ruffinos off his ribbed-silk-stockinged feet and I tried them on. The warmth of his feet still clung to them. They fit like they’d been custom-designed for me.

“Walk in them,” Kokker said. So I paraded up and down, giving what I thought were appreciative nods of comfort. I felt like a perfect ass. Maybe that was the idea.

“I’ll order you a pair,” Kokker offered. “No, two pair. A small token of appreciation for our many years of professional association. Or call it a belated housewarming gift.”

“No really, I couldn’t.”

“Oh, please. Don’t deny me my little pleasures.”

“God, will you stop with the begging, already,” Sandra wailed, holding her ears in mock horror. “I hear enough of that when we’re in bed together. Take the damn dago shoes, Ricky. He won’t let up until you do.”

“I always get what I want,” Kokker said, gazing into my eyes. “Ask Sandra if you don’t believe me.”

“Maybe Ricky needs a drink to loosen up,” Sandra offered. “What’s everybody drinking?”

My eyes darted to Diane. She had looked forward to this evening. I didn’t want to spoil it by making her uncomfortable. She didn’t approve of my drinking. It was that simple.

“Ricky and I don’t drink,” Diane answered for both of us. “Club soda would be fine.”

“Sounds great,” I added uneasily. But Sandra wasn’t satisfied.

“God, Ricky, you’re not in the house of the Borgias, you know. We haven’t poisoned anybody yet.”

“But the night is young,” Dr. Kokker added. Everybody got a laugh out of that one.

“Actually, I’d love to see how you’ve featured the new pieces, Sandy,” Diane said.

“Why don’t I have Hephzibah bring our drinks into the drawing room while I give you the tour, then?”

We all took off for the house tour, stopping at all points of interest. I recognized the Bern bears hat rack, curule chairs, walnut armoire, oak writing desk, refectory table, and Windsor sextet. Without Sandra as a guide, we would have needed a map to find any of them; the huge house swallowed up furniture the way hell swallows up souls. It was like a private tour of Versailles.

The master bath was a trip. I couldn’t take my eyes away from a sea-green marble sybarite’s tub big enough to swim laps in, sunken into the black mirrored floor. Kokker had installed a waterfall cascade that extended nearly to the ceiling like a jade terrace.

“You have such excellent taste, Sandra,” Diane was saying. “Imagine having the wherewithal to decorate on such a broad canvas and to have created such a showplace, every room a masterpiece. You must be very proud.”

“We couldn’t have done it without your lovely contributions, my dear,” Kokker chimed in. “While we’re here, let me show you something.” He snapped his fingers.

Instantly the sound of rushing waters filled the room with a Babel of voices talking backward. Water cascaded from a hidden fountainhead high above us, channeling into the mouth of the tub, the force of its currents creating a whirlpool.

The disembodied voices confused and disturbed me, as if they contained every affront and every cruelty I had ever heard or ever would hear, all run together in liquid execration. Diane seemed oblivious to them, so I put them off as the latest effects of the Crankenstein. Kokker and Sandra appeared to be watching us, eager for any reaction. Steam rose from the roiling water in the tub.

“Anyone care for a dip?” Kokker called out over the racket. Diane paused as if she were considering it, then looked to me. Kokker persisted. “Shame to waste all this hot water. Ricky?”

“I didn’t bring a suit,” I said.

“Hell’s bells, Ricky, wear the suit you were born with,” Sandra scoffed. “God, you people are puritanical. I’ll go first.” She kicked off her heels and tested the swirling water with one glitter-polished big toe. “Come here, Ricky,” she said. I glanced at Diane, who had a blank expression on her face, staring down into the blue-green water already beginning to calm in the tub.

Kokker clapped his hands and the water came alive in a sea of champagne Jacuzzi bubbles. Sandra had turned her back to me. “I’m waiting, Ricky,” she said. “Unzip me.”

So I unzipped her out of the tight little cocktail dress. She wriggled until it fell to the floor. My shaking fingers had more trouble undoing the four-inch span of bra strap behind her back. She had to help me. I felt my wife’s eyes boring into my back like twin laser beams. But when I turned to her, she had already begun to undress.

“In the Soviet Union we had communal baths,” she was telling Kokker, who stared at her with undisguised glee. “I can still remember them as a child when my mother took me there. The women’s body hair looked so gross to me. She had to warn me not to stare.”

“None of us minds if you stare tonight, Di,” Sandra called out. “The ‘no gawking’ sign is off.” In a breathless tone she added, “That goes for you too, Ricky.”

The background voices had become a murmur, barely perceptible behind the Jacuzzi rush of water. I began to suspect Kokker was piping in some kind of subliminal mind-control device for overcoming human will, suppressing the higher faculties of judgment and discretion. I knew that casual public nudity would have been totally out of the question for Diane under ordinary circumstances. The jumble of whispers and sighs was enough to stir the mind into a disquieted state as turbid as the waters before us.

I stared straight ahead, dumb with animal excitement, head lowered, mouth agape—pretending not to notice Sandra’s nude form in the periphery of my vision yet able to focus on nothing else. She eased herself into the torrents of the Jacuzzi surf until her breasts buoyed out like twin pontoons. Looking over her shoulder, she called, “Come join me?”

I turned to search Diane’s expression. In her blue eyes, lit by the refraction from the water with sparkles of gold like the dawn sky of creation morning, she showed me a defiance I had never met in her before—yet knew at once had dwelt there all along. If I live to be a hundred, I will always carry with me the way she looked directly into my eyes while, standing next to Kokker, she shrugged her breasts free of her bra.

Kokker hurried, eager to undress. In a moment, he stood naked, staring at Diane. I couldn’t look away from him. He had the body of an endomorph, his flabby drooping breasts almost as big as a woman’s. There was a pyramid-shaped outline of grizzled stubble where his pubes should have been. The rest of his body was hairless and gray as a porpoise. The colorless tip of his flaccid penis, limp as a banana peel, barely peeked out from beneath the folds of his abdomen, which seemed to support his sagging Buddha belly like a hammock.

“Kirk always says it’s not size that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts. Right, Kirk?”

“Last one in is a rotten egg,” Kokker said before gingerly climbing into the Jacuzzi.

Diane stepped out of her panties and stood there nude, in full view of these near-strangers. Only the uncomfortable flexing of her toes on the polished floor betrayed her reticence. Hephzibah, who had entered the room without my noticing, appeared behind her like a demon about to take her soul. Instead, she took her panties, dangling them from one disdainful index finger.

Someone had done a high-priced nail job on Hephzibah. She walked to a dressing area where she dropped Diane’s panties into a wicker basket. I wondered what Kokker had to pay her for that kind of “picking up after.” As I watched, Diane, my demure spouse, then stepped down into the steamy tub and took her place beside Kokker.

The only one still wearing his skivvies, I stood hesitating. “C’mon, Dick, show us what you’ve got,” Sandra challenged, leaning back and tracing lazy arcs in the water with her outstretched arms.

“That’s right, Ricky,” Kokker chided. “Don’t be shy. I’ve seen it all before. I’m a doctor.”

“And I’m a doctor’s assistant,” Sandra added.

So I peeled off my Fruit of the Looms. Sandra applauded noisily and let out an estrogen-laced war whoop. Diane and Kokker were already engrossed in private conversation; I couldn’t make out anything they were saying to each other.

Even when I stood at-ease, as now, the Crankenstein kept Big Rick suspended in a bashful, half-mast equilibrium. Hands on hips, I struck a pose tubside, giving everybody a better look. Diane glanced at me for a moment, then rolled her eyes and looked away.

Kokker did something to dim the lights. A heating coil built in below the tub basin began to glow ruby red through thick translucent glass and coursing water. In the near-darkness, the water reminded me of molten lava.

“You could blot out the sun with that thing, Dick,” Sandra said in a voice heavy with lust. She slid over, making just enough room for me between her and Diane, then suggested, “Let’s sit boy girl, boy girl.”

“Hot enough for you?” Kokker asked.

“We’ll all be red as lobsters,” Diane said, turning her head to direct her remarks to Kokker while studiously ignoring me. Two could play that game. I accepted Sandra’s invitation and sat down next to her. A few moments later I heard a clink of crystal stemware on the stone floor behind me. Hephzibah circled around, serving our drinks.

“I don’t know how all of you feel, but why don’t we simply dine in here this evening?” Kokker, the gracious host, proposed. Why did I think he’d planned it that way all along?

“No one could ever accuse us of being overdressed,” Diane responded, submerged neck-deep in the overheated water, still training her face toward him and away from me.

The water temperature was pushing the pain envelope. We all sat for a considerable time, overcome by the torpor: four frogs being boiled in a kettle. Kokker didn’t make a move to lower the heat until Diane’s discomfort raised her up out of the water. She turned and reached for her drink, exposing the full curves of her breasts and their dark, blushing circles to him in the firelight. Kokker’s eyes followed them as though they were two polestars to navigate by.

“Could we turn it down a little?” Diane asked, making no attempt to cover herself. Kokker adjusted the heat. The engulfing redness dimmed, leaving the water opaque and greenish-black, like a tropical ocean by night.

Diane edged closer to Kokker in the tub, drink in hand. She caught my eye for an instant with what seemed a defiant glare, making no effort to hide her bare breasts below the water line as she made easy social conversation with Kokker. I slid to press my hip and thigh against hers, but she sprang away, sitting cheek-to-cheek with Kokker instead. There we sat, Diane and I, each daring the other to greater and greater marital infractions, heedless of our vows. I reached for my own drink as though it were a weapon.

Kokker’s mixologist had trouble distinguishing club soda from Absolut. My first sip almost gagged me. I looked at my glass, held its cold condensation against my forehead, and then took a greedy swig from it. A familiar warmth, deeper and more satisfying than the hot tub could offer, began to seep from within.

“Proper etiquette dictates that a lady should always be seated to the right of her host,” Kokker was saying.

“I guess I’m a lady, then,” Diane responded.

“Interestingly enough,” Kokker went on, “in olden days any lady a man seated to his left was no lady. At least that’s what I retain from reading Amy Vanderbilt.”

“I guess that means any man sitting at the hostess’s left flank is no gentleman, either,” Sandra said, looking at me.

“Busted,” I said. That was about the time Sandra started jacking me off underwater, watching my face for a reaction. Trying to act nonchalant, I took another man-sized pull on my drink and felt its warmth spread through me.

“Does that hit the spot, Dick?” Sandra purred. It did. I drank off the rest of the oversize goblet’s contents in one quick gulp. Instantly, Hephzibah was at my side like temptation incarnate, replacing my drink with a fresh one filled to the brim. I went to work on that one as well.

“So tell us what kind of law you practice, Ricky,” Sandra said, a teasing gleam in her eye. I struggled to control my breathing. My gaze fell upon a marble bath stand, where loomed a black figure I took at first for a carved minimalist rendition of a raven.“I see you’re an art aficionado, Ricky,” Kokker said. “Your discerning eye wasted no time in finding its mark.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“A swizzle stick to stir the cauldron of man’s passions,” Kokker enthused, gesturing grandly. “I picked it up at a private auction in New York City. Its provenance amused me.”

“It’s Kirk’s pride and joy,” Sandra snorted. “A damn dick made out of stone. The dick he outbid every other pervert in the world to buy.”

“Feel free to make a closer inspection, if you’d care to,” Kokker offered.

“Maybe later,” I said. It was all I could get out without gasping for breath. Sandra’s palm flesh swirled away. I had to struggle to regulate my breathing to a civil cadence.

“Ricky, be a dear. Hop out of the tub and bring it over here for us all to admire,” Sandra suggested, the taunt in her voice meant only for me.

“Give me a minute,” I croaked, tensing my neck against the edge of the tub and leaning back. In a minute, it would be all over. Diane was still turned toward Kokker.

“I know exactly how you feel, Ricky,” he said, talking to me over Diane’s shoulder. “The womblike bliss of warm moving water captures you and holds you in its thrall, doesn’t it? I can’t conceive of a man who won’t return to the womb every chance he gets. Isn’t that so, Diane? We men fairly jump at that chance, don’t we?”

“I’ll go get it, if Ricky won’t,” Diane said, shooting me a contemptuous look. She rose up out of the water like Aphrodite, climbed the two coral-green steps, and walked delicately over the slick floor to where the statue stood on the pedestal like a house god. There were no towels anywhere; water spilled off her pale body. The exquisitely defined curves of her derriere moved in a transporting rhythm.

“You work out, don’t you, Di?” Sandra said. Diane looked back over one shoulder and nodded.

“I thought so,” Sandra said. “A Stairmaster ass like yours is one thing money can’t buy.”

“Ricky seems to be enjoying the hot tub more than any of us,” Kokker remarked.“Did you guys say something?” Diane asked.

“You owe it to yourself to take that thing in your hand, Di,” Sandra urged.

Diane gave Sandra a crooked smile, then reached for the dildo. “It’s heavy,” she marveled. Grasping it mid-shaft, she pantomimed dumbbell exercises, convulsing Sandra.

“Careful,” Kokker warned her. “It’s fashioned from a single perfect piece of obsidian, a semiprecious stone. Very valuable, even leaving aside its lurid history.”

“Better listen to him, Di,” Sandra said. “I’d never hear the end of it if anybody ever dropped and busted Kirk’s big black prick. He takes better care of it than he does of me.”

“That’s because it never talks back to me, my sweet.”

“Well, then, maybe you ought to take it to bed with you.”

“Interesting thought,” Kokker said, amused. “I think I’ll pass, though. The last person to take it to bed with him died a horrible death. Two gay hustlers wedged it down his throat when he proved less than generous.”

The backstage voices grew louder, as though clamoring with glee at Kokker’s last remark. The dildo had a menacing hooded head like an Egyptian cobra. Diane stroked it against her cheek, handling and toying with it like a child with a new plaything. Kokker said, “Aha!” drawing out the sound of his appreciation.

“Ricky won’t let me play with sex toys,” Diane said, cradling the sculpture near her face. Then suddenly her eyes rolled up into the back of her head. Her eyelids quivered half-closed. She stood shaking and whimpering. Her urine flowed down her legs and feet and splattered against the tiles.

Sandra leaped out of the tub and held Diane in her arms until she calmed enough to stop trembling. Only when Kokker reminded Sandra to protect the dildo did she take it from Diane’s white-knuckled grasp and slam it impatiently back onto its pedestal.

The voices stopped, and Diane seemed to regain her senses at once. “What happened? Where am I?” she said in a soporific monotone. Then she seemed to realize for the first time that she was naked. She struggled frantically to cover herself, folding her arms and crossing her knees one in front of the other.

“That’s okay, honey, you’re among friends here,” Sandra said. Without looking at the housekeeper, she added, “Hephzibah, be a dear. Go get a mop and bucket and swamp up all this pee pee for me, won’t you, sweetheart? Thanks.”

Kokker somehow turned the waterfall back on. The same infernal chorus of voices rose once more, scornful and contemptuous. Diane’s demeanor relaxed immediately. She coolly surveyed Sandra’s body embracing hers, both of them nude. Her upper lip twisted into a sardonic sneer.

“We’ve got to stop meeting like this, Sandy. I think Ricky and Kirk are getting suspicious.”

Sandra looked nervously from Kokker to Diane and back again. “You sure you’re okay, Di Di? We all figured you were freaking out just now.”

“Let’s get back in the water,” Diane said. “Girl girl, boy boy this time.”

“We’ll get back into the water, all right,” Sandra said warily, “but you’re not ready for girl girl, boy boy, Di. Not yet, anyway.”

Both women sat on the beveled edge of the tub dangling their feet in the water before sliding down onto the submerged marble bench, one on either side of me. Before long Hephzibah was bringing green salads, shrimp cocktails, and more drinks—followed by the main course, coquilles St. Jacques. The four of us ate sitting in the hot tub. I had no appetite—another legacy of the Crankenstein. Sandra greedily gobbled up every morsel of shrimp and scallop I offered her. She insisted that I finger-feed her like a dog at the table. Her soft tongue made suggestive overtures whenever Diane’s back was turned. Hephzibah, for her part, kept my glass filled. By dinner’s end I was loaded.

“God, look at me. I’m getting all pruny,” Sandra said at last, after the dishes had been cleared. “What do you think of this, Di? My fingertips are wrinklier than an old man’s scrotum. Maybe it’s time we got out of this damn tub.” She laughed loopily.

“Good idea,” Diane agreed. But when she took one step she collapsed against the marble, crying out in pain louder than during her birth travail with any of our children.

“Honey, your back?” I asked, rushing to hold her.

“Not to worry,” Kokker said. With all the professional mien a naked man could muster, he stood behind Diane and said, “May I?” The question seemed to be directed as much to me as to her. I gave place, and Kokker began laying his hands on Diane’s lower back.

“Paravertebral muscle spasms,” he muttered. “L-three through L-six, I should imagine. Have you lifted anything heavy recently?”

“Just some furniture,” Diane gasped, doubled over at a ninety-degree angle as Kokker stood behind her.

“Bet you wish you had that to do over again, huh?” She winced for an answer. It was a rhetorical question. “Is there a chance you might be pregnant?”

Diane made an exasperated face. I knew Kokker was concerned about X-rays. “No chance,” I answered for her.

“Ah, there’s the ringing voice of authority,” he said. “‘No chance.’ I think we’ll need a robe. Hephzibah?”

The four of us lifted Diane from the tub, dried her head to toe with thick bath towels, and slipped a robe on her. We sat her in the wheelchair the housekeeper had brought. Kokker himself wheeled her away. I moved to follow them, but Sandra caught my wrist.

“No husbands allowed,” she said. “He’ll take at least an hour with her, give or take.” Seeing my concern, she patted my hand and added, “He really is a pretty good chiropractor, you know. Come on. Let’s get dressed. I want to pick your lawyer brain.”

Why did I suspect that what Sandra had in mind beat waiting-room magazine reading all to hell?

 

 

 

Chapter Ten – Mizzourah Hoodoo

 

“I had a nightmare. It was called my childhood,” Sandra said. We had moved at her suggestion to the rathskeller. Sandra’s idea of our getting dressed had been two crimson silk robes identical to the one Diane had worn when Kokker wheeled her away. The Kokkers had enough on hand to supply an orgy. The feel of the silk against my skin was a new and erotic experience for me—more intense than merely being naked.

“Then I met Kirk Kokker. Do you mind if I take this damn thing off?” She pointed to her head. I shrugged, perplexed.

“Must be the steam from the hot tub. It’s itching like crazy.” She dug her fingers in under her hairline above her forehead and peeled back. The blond wig came off, revealing her head shaved utterly bald. The whole thing had been held on with some strips of hypoallergenic tape around the perimeter. “Bald head, bald pussy,” she said. “How do you like the real me?”

The effect was truly arresting. With her high-fashion makeup perfectly done, she looked like a store mannequin between gigs at Frederick’s of Hollywood.

“If I ask you something, will you be honest with me?” Sitting next to me by the fire, she leaned toward me, grasped my right hand to the wrist with both of hers and eased it into her lap. I could feel her carnival gypsy’s grip simultaneously testing my galvanic skin response and taking my pulse. She peered into my eyes for any telltale dilation or constriction feedback, at the same time counting my respiration rate. I knew I couldn’t lie to her. Her face was inches from mine and her eyes, reflecting the flames, took in everything. “Have you ever had sex with Janis Mezzanotte?”

“What do you mean?” The question caught me totally off-guard.

“I mean, have you ever done anything with her? Anything you couldn’t let your wife or me find out about? Tell me the truth, Dick. I’ll know right away if you lie to me.”

It may sound crazy, but in that moment something about her inspired my confidence. Maybe I just needed to confess. Or brag. “Yes, I have.”

“Ricky, Ricky, Ricky,” she chided. “Don’t sweat it. I’m not going to rat you out. You and Di are friends of mine now. Bathing buddies. Seen each other naked, and all that.” Sandra made no move to loosen her grip on me. “So let me warn you about something. Stay away from Janis Mezzanotte.”

“But how do you—”

“Ricky. You’re playing with something you don’t know anything about. Like a kid playing with a loaded gun. Stay away from the bitch—for your own good. Whenever you’re burning for a little nooky on the side, all you have to do is ask us.”

“Us?”

“The thing about Kirk and me, we’re in the Lifestyle, see? That means that either of us can swing separately, but only if the other partner knows about it and gives the go-ahead. Don’t worry, though—Kirk likes you. We already gave each other permission tonight, it being a holiday and all.”

“Holiday?” Why did everybody I ran into today seem to be on a different calendar?

“Saint Agnes’ Eve. It’s a big holiday for us Satanists. We’ve got people coming over to the house later, as a matter of fact.” She became suddenly shy, like asking for a date on Sadie Hawkins day. “We—that is, Kirk and I—were hoping maybe you and Diane might join in, as first-timers.” It was only then that I realized her diamond earrings were not upraised swords at all but rather upside-down crosses.

Before I could tell her no thanks, she had changed the subject.

“Anyway, there’s another reason I brought you down here. As you must have figured out by now, my husband and I are free-thinkers.”

“Okay.”

“I’m freely thinking of leaving my husband. Does that thought interest you, Ricky?”

“Should it?”

“I was just wondering if there might be some reason, something you and he discussed, why he might want to get me out of the house permanently, that’s all. So tell me, Ricky: did my loving husband ever bring you down here to talk over a divorce?”

I swallowed. “You know I couldn’t discuss anything like that with you, Sandra, even if it were true.”

“Good answer, Ricky. The swallow, I mean. Kirk says he likes to hear me swallow. Sick bastard.”

She broke her hypnotic gaze on me to pan the rathskeller. “I must have swallowed an ocean of cum in this room,” she said. “How about it, Ricky?”

“Sandra,” I said, “I don’t represent your husband for the purpose of a divorce. Does that answer your question?”

“A very carefully worded answer, Ricky. And very intentionally misleading, isn’t it? Meaning you may not have been formally hired to represent him yet, but the two of you still went ahead and discussed it.”

“I haven’t said whether he and I discussed anything.”

She toyed with her CS medallion and ignored my remark. “This house holds some very valuable secrets,” she said. “Some very powerful and dangerous things, things that might make desperate people act desperately, know what I mean?”

“You’re talking in riddles, Sandra.”

“Janis talked in riddles tonight, too, didn’t she?”

“Who says I talked to her at all?”

“Janis wants something from this house, doesn’t she? She’s always wanted it. She still wants it, bad enough to send you up here like a messenger boy to get it for her.” My eyes must have opened up wide, because she added, “Diane’s not the only one who’s psychic around here, Ricky. But you know what? I know where he keeps it. I know where he keeps everything. Everything that gives him his power over others. You play your cards right and start coming clean with me, maybe I’ll let you have what you want. Kirk’s not the one with the power around here. He just thinks he is. Without his possessions, he’s nothing. That’s why he wants to separate me from his possessions. His other possessions.”

“You’ve lost me, Sandra.”

“All right. I’ll make it simple for you. Tell me what Janis asked you to find for her, and maybe I’ll just go ahead and give it to you. How’s that?”

“She only said I’d know it when I saw it.”

Sandra looked at me strangely, as though she’d just learned a secret. “Where’s your mother buried?” she asked. I heard the weird voices again. They rose in an excited whisper like the slithering of snakeskin.

“Salem,” I said. “But why in hell—”

“Why in Hell indeed, Ricky.” Sandra tickled my palm with a fingernail and cocked her head. “She pretty hard on you growing up?”

“Who, my mother?”

“Who the hell else we been talking about, Dude?”

“I came through it all right, I guess.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I can see that.”

“What’s all this got to do with—”

“Quit asking so many questions,” she teased. She lounged back on the sectional, locking her elbows under her knees. Then she pulled her knees up nearly to her shoulders, interlaced her fingers behind her head and spread her thighs, tying herself into a human pretzel. Her shaved genitals made me think of raw dressed poultry. She said, “Well?” I had already resolved to set up an open Crankenstein account with Artie.

“Now, isn’t this better than anything you got from Janis tonight?” she challenged mere minutes later. “That Crankenstein really kicks ass, doesn’t it?” She clamped down with some kind of love muscle squeeze play that they don’t teach you in ballet school. “Don’t look so surprised. Artie works for us.” Sandra grinned at me. Clad only in the CS pendant, she could have been an inflatable vinyl sex toy.

“We know every move you make, Ricky,” Sandra said. “And we won’t let up until you and Di join us. Here, I want to show you something cool.”

Sandra seemed to change while I was still fucking her, to will herself into a trance state. Her eyes rolled back in their sockets. I could see the red veins in the whites of her eyes rising like two claw hands of a demon climbing out of the pit. The voices grew louder and more distinct—a Greek chorus of the damned set loose on Saint Agnes’ Eve. They seemed to anticipate Sandra’s words before she said them, as though an echo was prompting her. Her voice taut and hoarse, she began a slow litany, encouraged by the voices:

 

 

Horned One, show no mercy,

Old One, take my soul;

Horned One, show no mercy,

Old One, fill my hole.

 

 

At the end of every croaked line, she would empty her lungs, expelling her breath like a death rattle. Her eyes rolled back into balance like two magic eight-balls. She looked at me, amused. “What’s the matter, Dick? Afraid of a little Mizzourah hoodoo? C’mon, repeat after me:

 

 

Horned One, show no mercy,

Old One, wear my soul;

Horned One, show no mercy,

Ricky’s in my hole;

Make my pussy an open grave,

Hell’s my final goal.”

 

 

The voices began to bleed through like an unmentionable stain. Wild, disturbed voices of lost souls, all speaking at once, in contrapuntal layers of sound, complementing Sandra’s litany, like recording tracks mixed together.

When Sandra spoke to me again, it was in a voice I hadn’t heard in twenty years outside of my nightmares: the voice of Pete Weegers. I could see the emaciated outline of his skull showing through Sandra’s complexion and could smell his acrid body odor that always made me want to hawk and spit. Mandrill cheek creases eroded his skin from his nostrils to his chin.

“What’s a case like mine usually worth, Ricky?” Pete asked. “Worth enough to hang around for?” Then a wheezing mirthless laugh, followed by a violent cough. A sound like the snap of a stick wrapped in wet towels breaking in two. It took me a moment to realize what that sound had been. It brought Sandra back into focus beneath me quick as a snap of magician’s fingers.

“Ever channel the dead, Dick? Anybody can do it with a little practice.”

I shuddered violently; Sandra’s body suddenly felt chilled and clammy under mine. Then I realized I was sweating profusely. Was it from fear? Or a tweak freakout complete with visual and auditory hallucinations courtesy of Artie’s Crankenstein? “It’s way too radical for me.”

“Don’t knock it. It’s kind of a jumped-up virtual reality kick.”

“What if I ran into trouble evicting one of them afterwards?”

“Doesn’t happen that way, Dick. Don’t believe everything you see in the movies. These aren’t souls that like being tied down. Kind of like most of the men I’ve known. Hold the phone, here comes another one.” Sandra’s body went into spasms as though climaxing. I bent to suck on one of her mammoth breasts. As soon as my tongue touched her nipple, the taste brought back a sensory phantasm more than twenty years old.

Lurid neon. A smell in the place like a musty basement. Price list spelled out on the wall in glitter. Rock music playing somewhere in the back. Carla didn’t smoke, but the taste of her dugs was sour spittle and nicotine from whatever trick she’d been with last.

I looked up into the face of Carla Tremayne. “It weren’t no fun for me neither, Ricky,” she said in that lilting Kentucky drawl of hers, “you worrying my titties the way you always done. Made my flesh crawl, truth be told, my own lawyer messing with me the way you always done.”

No one but Carla and I could have known any of it: my secret shamefaced visits to the Salome Spa.

“Who murdered you, Carla?” I implored the specter “Who mutilated your body and took your life?”

“Why, you did, Ricky.”

“A demon would know all about Carla and me,” I said.

“Look who’s calling cases,” she smirked. “You weren’t so high and mighty when I had you laid out on the table asking you powder or lotion. I reckon if you’d gone ahead and wrote up my divorce papers all nice and proper, I wouldn’t of had to’ve been workin’ in no massage parlor and gettin’ myself murdered and that. So what say you go ahead an’ let me come inside you for a spell? It ain’t much to ask, after all the messin’ you done with me.”

But whatever was running the show chose that instant to treat me to a strobe-flash glimpse of a rotted corpse, her putrid flesh staining the ivory satin lining of a coffin big enough for both of us.

Suddenly Carla was gone. The voices fell silent.

“You must have cum so hard you scared her away,” Sandra chided. “Too bad. She was a fun one. You gave me what I needed, though. Thanks, Dick. Oh, and if Kirk asks, lie and tell him me and you used a rubber, okay? See, the thing is, I quit taking my pill months ago.”

“You mean you aren’t using birth control? Why not?”

“I don’t know. Kind of a daredevil stunt, I guess you could call it. Get knocked up, piss Kirk off, get his attention. Go figure. And you’re obviously the logical choice because you’re fertile. I mean, four healthy kids. Wow!”

“You tricked me!”

“You know something? I think tonight you hit the bull’s-eye. Something magical happened. A woman can sense right away when a man’s knocked her up.”

I shook my head with disbelief. “You planned all this?”

“That’s a stupid question coming from you, Ricky. Shall we rejoin the others? Kirk’s probably got your old lady loose as a goose by now.” Sandra reached out and goosed me.

Until that moment I hadn’t even thought of Diane alone, her irreplaceable body in the hands of a jealous husband. I threw on the robe and ran from the rathskeller, struggled to open the Fox lock, slid back the deadbolts and pulled open the heavy dungeon door. All the while I heard Sandra’s peals of twinkly, scornful laughter echoing behind me, pursuing and stalking me like hell’s bells.

 

 

I hurried into my clothes and found Diane in the foyer, fully dressed and seated on one of the Victorian divans she’d sold Sandra. I hurried to kiss her. She refused to look at me. Kokker stood by and watched, intensely interested.

“Where have you been?” she said the way you’d talk to a dog.

“Sandra wanted to show me the house,” I said. “You know, her things.”

“We saw the house already. All of a sudden you needed to have a second look? Since when have you developed this intense interest in antiques? I never noticed it anytime I needed help around the shop.”

Kokker almost shivered with excitement, relishing our argument. “You shouldn’t be too hard on Ricky, Diane. My wife no doubt ‘turned into a tongue’ as the Armenians say.”

“What could you two possibly find to talk about for over an hour?” Diane persisted.

“Honey, how’s your back?”

“Fine. Kirk healed me.” Diane stood effortlessly, took Kokker’s hand in hers, looked into his eyes, and said, “Thank you.”

“Think nothing of it, my dear. A physician can never ignore pain and suffering when he has the means to heal at his ready disposal. I swore an oath, you see.”

I burned with curiosity to find out what exactly the treatment had consisted of, but Diane’s silent, smoldering anger filled me with awkwardness. Kokker looked from one of us to the other. Divide and conquer. I felt a totally misplaced and irrational suspicion that my wife had been unfaithful to me with Kokker but I was in no position to confront either one of them. I was probably just misinterpreting Diane’s gratitude to Kokker for the successful outcome of the treatment, or maybe it was no more than my projected guilt tweaking me. At any rate, when the door chime sounded and Kokker excused himself to greet his arriving guests, I felt relieved.

“You’re not thinking of staying, are you?” I said to Diane under my breath. Almost hoping she’d say yes. A deep, dirty shiver ran through me at the thought that together we might stay and rub elbows—and maybe other body parts—with the moral reprobates who were even now mingling in couples and groups, eager for the fun to begin—a bunch of silly Midwestern Satanists devoted to the Lifestyle. Sex on Crankenstein was a real eye-opener, all right—everything Artie had claimed it would be, and more. Shaken as I had been by the spectral appearances of Pete Weegers and Carla Tremayne, I still craved the excitement. A little humpety-hump with the dark side.

“Why? So you can get even drunker?”

It was then that I realized it was only the alcohol on my breath that had angered her. My body sagged with relief. I almost said a silent prayer of gratitude. Guilt over alcohol I could handle; it was sexual guilt that must not speak its name. “Honey, they practically forced it on me. You heard us both ask for club soda.”

“How could they force, what, a dozen drinks on you? Your eyes are bloodshot, and you have this lazy smirk on your face, Ricky. I hate seeing you like this, and it makes me angry. It’s selfish. It tells me you think I’m stupid, that I’ll put up with anything from you. I want to drive us both home now. Tell Kirk we have baby sitter problems.”

I agreed at once, encouraged that she’d told me the reason for her anger so quickly. That meant it was already passing. We waited for a break when Kokker wasn’t busy with his guests. Sandra was still nowhere in sight. I reassured a reluctant Diane that tonight was a one-time thing with the drinking, an isolated slip. By the time Sandra finally appeared, I almost had us both believing it was all true. Sandra had reattached her wig and carried a red foil gift bag in her hand.

The foyer was loud with the amiable chatter of well-dressed, immaculately groomed ladies and gentlemen, professional types, mostly older. Hephzibah would have her hands full tonight picking up the dinner jackets and gowns, supp-hose, corsets, and thermal long-johns once the party got going. Some of the men were already casting curious sidelong glances at Diane.

Sandra approached us and slipped me the gift bag. As soon as its handles passed into my hands, Kokker glanced over his shoulder with a glower of displeasure, but an elderly couple was commanding his attention. The old man was showing his yellowed, vulpine teeth, grinning and shaking his finger in Kokker’s face to make some point. Distracted, Kokker turned back to him.

I peeked inside the bag. Two black VHS cases, one smaller case, and a larger, rectangular, velvet-covered box—the shape of a box you’d buy a tie in. Eyes on her husband’s back, Sandra leaned against me and whispered, “Give the jewel box to Janis. Tell her now she’s got what she wants. The rest are for your eyes only. Enjoy.”

In a conversational tone, Sandra added, as though for Kokker’s benefit, “Why don’t you and Di stay for the festivities tonight, Ricky? Everybody’s dying to get to know you better.”

They all looked like guests at a wedding reception, but I knew a darker revelry was in store as soon as the deadbolts of the rathskeller door slid home. I’d never had group sex. Would some matron’s road map of varicose veins and battleship-gray thatch find me limp and socially unresponsive? Or would the behorned husband’s eyes on a younger man penetrating the old snatch invigorate me with the strangeness of the experience? I was not to find out that night. Sandra interrupted my flight of imagination to add in a whisper: “Whatever you do, don’t look inside the jewel box.”

“Why not?”

“Just give it to Janis. She’ll know what to do with it.”

I dared to touch her hand in a gesture as if to return the gift bag, saying, “You sure you want to do this?”

She shrugged. “A woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do, am I right?”

We said goodbye to her and walked past Kokker into the still night air. I knew he was dying to look inside the bag. I let Diane in the driver’s side, then unlocked the trunk and slipped the bag into the wheel well behind the spare.

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven – Skank’s Night Out

 

Diane drove with an emotional recklessness. Not making any mistakes, but without the ease of which she was capable, either. We passed a late-model Continental with judicial plates tooling down the lane in the opposite direction toward the house. The number was too obscured by blackened road salt to decipher at night—especially oncoming and behind a dozen stiff shots of Absolut—but it looked familiar.

“I couldn’t help noticing how you and Kokker seemed inseparable all evening,” I said, breaking the silence. “For two people who’d just met, I mean.”

“Maybe we should have stayed, like you wanted. Maybe Sandy would have done a strip tease for you. You’d have liked that, wouldn’t you? You’d like anything degrading to women. Too bad you decided to get so drunk instead.”

Through the years, I had learned the futility of winning an argument over the degree of one’s own sobriety. Instead, I said, “Maybe next time.” In retrospect, it was exactly the wrong thing to say.

“Maybe next time what? Next time you’ll try and get even drunker, or next time maybe you’ll see Sandy naked?”

“What? See Sandy naked?”

“Would you like me to do that in front of a roomful of strangers? You would, wouldn’t you?”

“How much of this evening do you remember, Diane?”

“I’m not the one drunk here,” she retorted with the self-righteous dudgeon of every designated driver I’ve ever met. “I remember the house tour. I remember us sitting down to dinner.”

“Sitting down to dinner?”

“I remember you having too much to drink and embarrassing me. I remember Sandy taking you somewhere to sober you up while Kirk—Doctor Kokker—worked on my back.”

“Do you remember picking up a statue and weirding out on us? Those voices?”

“Ricky,” she asked quietly, “how drunk are you?”

“I could put away twice what I did tonight—hell, three times—and still make it home alive.”

“Big hero,” was all she said. She drove in silence for at least fifteen minutes. The angry tension between us immobilized me better than an air bag pressed against my chest. Had the voices done a number on Diane’s short-term memory? Was it the dark side doing me a favor on St. Agnes’ Eve? And if so, what would they want in return? Or was Artie’s Crankenstein fitting me for a tinfoil hat?

Finally Diane pulled off the expressway and wheeled into a McDonald’s drive-through, ordered four large black coffees, and slid the carton across the seat toward me.

“Start drinking these,” she said curtly. “I don’t want Mad—or, God forbid, the children—to detect the slightest hint of intoxication on you by the time we get home.”

“If I drink all four of those right now, I’ll spend the rest of the night on the toilet,” I protested.

“Suits me.”

So I removed the plastic cover and sipped the first of the four scalding coffees. Like the Bourbon kings, McDonald’s had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Despite the much-publicized litigation, the coffee was still hot enough to cauterize the tip of my tongue. Mere caffeine made a poor substitute for Artie’s magic flavor crystals.

Now that she had me drinking coffee, Diane resumed a conversational tone. “Sandy invited me to lunch tomorrow,” she said. “Then we’re going to try out some of that Nautilus equipment she was showing us. Remember? In that downstairs room or whatever? Did you know she has a fully equipped gym and a personal trainer?”

“Is he fully equipped, too?”

“I didn’t bother to ask if it’s a he or a she. What’s the difference?”

“One has a penis. The other doesn’t.”

“Keep working on that coffee,” she said. “Forgive me, Ricky, but I’m finding out I don’t like you very much when you’ve been drinking. It’s like you’re another person. An ignorant person and kind of a loutish one at that.”

We passed under the overhead walkway to the Science Center. I seared off another layer of tongue skin before asking a semi-leading deposition question. “So what, if anything, did the renowned Doctor Kokker, chiropractor extraordinaire, do for you? Give you a rubdown?”

“He made me feel great, actually,” she replied.

“You looked sleepy when I found you. Did he have you lying down, or what?”

She took her eyes off Route Forty to look at me. “It’s funny,” she said, “but after he touched the side of my neck to adjust me, I was out like a light. It felt like only seconds, but it was longer than twenty minutes by the clock in his study.”

Janis had touched my neck the same way. I flashed on a repressed memory of the maneuver that had made me swoon into oblivion.

“I feel great, actually,” Diane repeated as though programmed. “I’ve never felt more rested or more pain-free.” We passed Union Station, Laclede’s Landing, and Busch Stadium on our left. By the time we’d reached the Illinois side, my hangover had kicked in.

Diane chatted away, reassured by my coffee consumption, having forgiven me my sins as she understood them to be. Seized with sudden urinary urgency, I prevailed on Diane to stop at another McDonald’s—one of the way stations of the new millennium. As I stood and completed nature’s cycle, my idle mind scanned the eye-level graffiti. Call Brenda for a good blowjob. I tried to imagine a bad one and caught myself committing the Belleville phone number to memory.

When I got back to the car, Diane said, “Why don’t we bring Mad back a shake or something? She’s sweet to watch the kids for us.”

I could think of a lot of adjectives to describe Madeleine. Sweet didn’t come to mind. For only the second time that night, I worried about our children.

I finished the last of the coffee as we passed the darkened shops along Main Street toward the east end of Belleville. A single blue electric candle, its light magnified through a crystal ball on a wire stand, burned a lonely vigil in the window of Fox & Hare. I hoped Diaz had found the time to contact Liz and begin his search for the missing Gwendace.

Diane did everything but make me walk a chalk line before agreeing to let me drive Mad home. Something impelled me to deliver the oblong jewel box to Janis that very night. Hurrying before Mad could come running out of the house, I popped the trunk and felt for the gift bag behind the spare. Defying Sandra’s warning, I opened the lid of the jewel box and looked inside.

A golden dagger glinted under the light of the street lamp. I had seen something vaguely like it on display with a traveling exhibition at the Saint Louis Art Museum in Forest Park—a Mesopotamian dagger eons old, fashioned by the hand of an unknown artisan who had long since returned to the dust of his forgotten wilderness. The one in my hands was a masterpiece by comparison. A curved black onyx scabbard bore the letters C and S graven with rubies in the loops of an infinity symbol. Filigreed designs appeared to depict a strange race of barbarous armed women. Toward the hilt and watching over them all was an owl with two sky-blue star sapphires for eyes and a snake caught in its beak. The handle was pure, refined gold, smooth as glass.

The Lilith talisman. Life seemed smaller than legend as I held it in my hands. Remembering Janis’s remark about fingerprints, I took my handkerchief and gently slid the scabbard down perhaps two inches.

The blade curved like a cutlass, but was thick as a hunting knife. Black dried blood clogged the channels on either side; some of it flaked off onto the cotton lining of the jewel box. This dagger was designed for bloody business as well as for show. Someone had gotten down to business with it and forgotten to clean it afterward. Had Kokker tricked Janis into touching the polished surface of its handle? It looked like the ideal spot to transfer fingerprints to. I slid the knife back into the scabbard. With my handkerchief, I polished the handle over and over again to wipe away any incriminating trace of her. It was the least I could do.

I had no sooner closed the box and slipped it back into the gift bag when Mad came flouncing out of the house with her armload of textbooks—an Irish Catholic coed from hell. I opened the front passenger door for her, then placed the gift bag on the front seat between us.

“What’s in the bag, bitch?” Mad rapped as she peeked inside it.

“Just something I promised to get for your mom,” I said. Immediately Mad’s expression damped down from whimsical to sullen. She stiffly faced forward and crossed her arms, her schoolbooks in her lap.

The gas gauge read half-full, meaning we were on the brink of empty. Cursing myself for not filling up in Missouri, where prices are lower, I pulled into the first cut-rate gas station we passed. Even our gas credit cards no longer functioned. I pumped my last ten dollars into the tank, then went inside to pay. The sign said the cashier had less than twenty dollars on hand. I knew the feeling.

By the time we were back on the road, Mad had lightened up enough to want to talk again. “You think I should get my tragus pierced?” she asked me. “You know, lance it to enhance it?”

I shrugged. I didn’t know the finer points of anatomy, unless you wanted to talk about the neck, the back, the wrist, and the knee, where I knew enough to be dangerous. Did the tragus have something to do with the ear?

“What about my philtrum? My philtrum’s still cherry,” Mad went on, an evil glint in her eye. “You want me to flash you my philtrum, right here in the car? What will you give me if I show you my bare philtrum?”

I knew some diehard piercing fanatics went for the labia, the clitoris, and points south. Even though we were stopped at what seemed like one of the longest red lights in the Metro East, I kept my eyes on the road and said nothing.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell my mother. I don’t tell that sleaze anything that goes on in my life, and she doesn’t care, either. So how about it, Mr. Galeer? Want a free peep at my barenaked philtrum?”

“No,” I muttered, shaking my head rapidly. After what seemed like a second too long, I added, “Please.”

“Too late, Mr. Galeer. It’s already out. Look over here, I’m showing it to you. You can take a picture of it if you like. I won’t tell your wife, either.”

I turned slowly to face Madeline. My neck cords spasmed with tension and guilty excitement. Whatever I’d expected, she sat there fully clothed and seat-belted. She smiled prettily and twitched her upper lip, then cracked up at my nervousness—a dipsy horselaugh. She reached over and playfully caressed the center seam of my mustache with an index fingertip.

“The philtrum is that little crease right under your nose,” she teasingly explained. “It means ‘love charm’ in Greek or something. God, you have such a dirty mind. Don’t bother to deny it. Remember that I’m psychic, just like your wife. Man, I wish she’d teach me, though.”

“Not much chance of that,” I said. “She considers it a curse. You heard her.”

“Your wife’s really hot,” Mad said. “You’re hella lucky, dude.”

“I guess I am at that.”

“Like, how many times a night do you two guys do it?”

“That’s an awfully personal question, Mad. You should maybe save questions like that for your mother.”

“My mother and I have issues.”

“Your mother loves you. She’s told me how concerned she’s been about you lately.”

“She’s a cunt.”

“You shouldn’t use language like that about your mother.”

“Well, then how about this: she’s a sleaze, a skeeze, and a slut, with Teflon tits and a goddamn bear trap for a beaver. Oh, fuck! Speak of the devil.”

As we rounded the corner before Janis’s house, Mad had spotted Janis standing on her doorstep, clinched in Diaz’s arms, her face uptilted for his goodnight kiss. The sight tortured me with a smoldering, twisting fire in my loins.

“Looks like skank’s night out,” Mad said.

“Why would you want to pierce your philtrum?” I asked to change the subject. I drove past the house and around the block. Then I cruised down Vandalia, waiting for my jealousy to pass. Would Mad pick up on it?

“Why not?”

“Doesn’t it hurt?”

“Not as much as piercing my clit, you dirty-minded man. You think I’d let some man stab my love nubbin?” Mad’s anger seemed to dissipate in proportion to the distance I placed between her mother and us. She was already playing me again.

“What do you think I’d take, about an eight gauge? After all, we don’t want the fucker to migrate. Or do we? Maybe you ought to take a peek under my hood, Mr. Galeer. We’ve got some time to kill.”

“We were talking about piercing your philtrum,” I said. “Or not.”

“No pain, no gain,” she shrugged. “The only thing, I’m afraid if I put like a bee bee-sized barbell in there, it’d look too much like a booger. What do you think?”

“I’d be afraid it’d get infected.”

Mad had been down that road. “Surgical stainless post,” she assured me. “Swab it with peroxide now and then to keep it clean. So what do you think? Here, take a closer look.”

We were passing the high school football practice field. Snow-covered, it gleamed in the moonlight. I pulled in and parked well away from the nearest streetlight. How would I explain myself if I got stuck in the patchy snow covering the gravel drive? Mad didn’t waste any time springing open her passenger restraint. Without saying a word, she lunged and planted a soul kiss on me. It made me think she’d been rehearsing it on a mirror with her eyes open. She kept her spike-pierced tongue stiff yet busy, as if that was something she figured I expected of her. The points of her tongue spike flailed away at me like a mace inside my mouth.

I felt her hands moving in my lap. Her fingers tapped my front pants pocket. In seconds, she had my wallet out. She leaped away toward the door, laughing maniacally and waving the wallet at me.

“I did it! I did it! You didn’t even feel it, did you?”

“Give me that back.” I was afraid I might have to wrestle her for it.

Her expression became a blank stare, then brightened. “Sandra,” she said.

“What?”

“You were with a woman named… Sandra tonight. God, I’m good.” Then a long abashed intake of her breath, followed by a dirty giggle.

“What is it?”

“I know everything you did to her, that’s all.”

Mad turned my wallet inside out, spilling all my worthless credit cards onto the floorboard carpet. I switched on the dome light and bent over to pick them up.

Mad hiked up her skirt and spread her legs. She didn’t believe in wearing panties.

“Let’s see, you owe me forty dollars for tonight. Little light, aren’t we? Maybe I can take it out in trade.” All I could think about was a passing police cruiser.

Suddenly everything went dark. Mad had thrown her full Goth skirt over my head like a blanket. She clamped her knees on either side of my head. I heard one of my ears pop. “Let’s see you eat your way out of this one,” she said.

I struggled to break free; her thighs were surprisingly hard and muscular. I loosened their grip once, but before I could roll out she clapped them together again. This time, both ears popped. She locked her ankles behind my back. I felt the chunky heels of her patent-leather boots digging into me.

I said the first thing I could think of: “Let me go. I’m a lawyer.”

She wouldn’t. The musky closeness of her was beginning to get to me, wearing down my resistance. Mad reached over and flipped off the dome light. I could see bright luminous points like stars showing through her skirt fabric. Soon those stars began to dance.

Under her breath she said, “Oh, shit. Busted.” She whipped the skirt off my head and modestly tucked it around her, looking away and hugging the door. The interior of the car was filled with moving white light. I sat up and looked to its source: the spotlight on an unmarked car parked on the road. A tall man exited the driver’s door and sauntered toward us, taking his time, silhouetted in the stark glare. I heard every gravel crunch of his footsteps. I thought of the bloody dagger—had I really wiped off all of Janis’s fingerprints? And the pornographic videotapes—in plain sight, as the search-and-seizure cases always say. When he drew closer, I caught sight of the eighteen-inch flashlight he carried. The driver’s side power window hadn’t worked in months, so I opened the car door and stepped out to greet him.

“Just taking the babysitter home, officer,” I offered, smiling hopefully into his backlit face.

“We saw you drive by the house,” Diaz said. “Kind of cold out here for stargazing, isn’t it?” He shined the flashlight directly into Mad’s face, then mine.

“You know you got some black shoe polish on your lip?” he asked me, too loud for conversation. Though his tone seemed to demand an answer, we stood there in silence—me staring down the barrel of his flashlight—for what seemed like a full minute. Then he asked, “How old’re your kids again?” I told him. He nodded. More silence. I felt like asking him if I was under arrest.

Instead, I tried to affect nonchalance. “Well, better be going,” I said, nodding as if to agree with myself. “Cold out here.” I slapped my ribs a couple of times for realism. But when I moved toward the safety of the car, I heard him say, “Just a minute.” He might as well have said, “Freeze, asshole.” I froze.

He pulled out the pocket handkerchief from his lapel, handed it to me. “Better wipe that black shit off. Might give somebody the wrong idea.”

Diaz followed us in the squad car all the way to Janis’s before taking off.

 

 

Janis was still in the suit she’d worn to the office when she let us in close to midnight. “Hello, Ricky,” she said at the door. “I see you’ve managed to return Cinderella before the clock strikes twelve.”

“Hi, Sleaze,” Mad said. She elbowed her way past Janis. Soon we heard a door slam upstairs. Janis looked at me helplessly and mouthed the word sorry.

“I’m the one should be sorry, keeping her out so late,” I said, jewel box in hand. On the coffee table, an orange-scented votive candle burned before a picture of Saint Agnes standing in a garden of calla lilies with a Presidio-like building in the background. In her right hand, the saint held a palm frond; her left arm cradled a lamb.

Janis’s eyes fastened on the jewel box. Mindful of my quest, I handed it to her. She drew the drapes and opened the box. Recognized it in an instant. Closed the box again without touching the dagger. Placed the box on the coffee table and turned to me. “How can I ever repay you?” she whispered.

“You can start by being friends with me again,” I whispered back. “I didn’t appreciate that little wake-up slap slap at the office tonight. A certain witch of my acquaintance says that everything you do comes back to you three times over.”

“I never heard that one,” Janis replied in a normal tone of voice.

My bladder felt like an over-stretched water balloon, what with the Crankenstein, the drinks, and the four coffees large. I asked to use her rest room. To my surprise, Janis shut off the lights, blew out the candle, and then led me up the staircase. I followed her down a dark hallway and into a bathroom where she closed and locked the door behind us. I watched her undress in silence, her back to me. Mad’s room was eight feet down the hall.

Janis ran the shower steaming hot. “I hate cold tile.” She shut the water off, stepped into the tub, and reclined, facing up at me. Despite her position and her nudity, her facial expression held a quiet yet challenging dignity as she said, “Go ahead, Ricky. Don’t be bashful. I love golden showers.”

“I’ve never done this before,” I said. “I mean, not on somebody. Not on purpose.”

“That’s funny,” Janis said. “I’ve heard you use the expression probably a thousand times around the office.”

I unzipped and stood there like a dummy for a dramatic pause that seemed like minutes, waiting for the little piss fairies to quit screwing with me and turn on the waterworks. I had a world-class public men’s room stricture going. “This is stupid,” I kept saying, feeling like a kid in kindergarten trying to go with Teacher watching.

“You think it would help if we put your piddies in some warm water?” We paused for another eternity, listened to the echoing drip of the shower nozzle, and contemplated the amusing paradox of me standing there with a header of piss I couldn’t seem to unload for love or art. I looked like one of those fountain cherubs after somebody forgot to pay the water bill.

Finally, Janis took pity on me. She reached up and massaged my abdomen with gentle strokes and swirls like she was finger-painting without any paint. I closed my eyes; the dam broke at last. Janis writhed like a vampire sprinkled with holy water from the pure dirty joy of it. She opened her mouth and took in a greedy drinking-fountain stream. Then, so help me, I heard her gargle with it, to the tune of Singing in the Rain.

Unsure of the proper etiquette in these situations, I shook the last few drops onto her with a symphony conductor’s flourish. There was a hard knock at the door.

Mad’s muffled voice said quietly, “I know what you’re doing in there, Mother. I know what both of you are doing, and I think it’s disgusting.”

Only after she had fully showered—with me watching—and washed her hair did Janis, wearing a blue terrycloth robe and a rose towel turban, unlock and open the bathroom door.

She led me through the silent dark house and down the stairs as though she had night vision. I heard her unlock the front door with a key. She gave me a kiss no different than Diaz had gotten when we reached the front door. I had a million questions to ask her, but knew Diane would have even more than that to ask me when I returned home.

I had parked in the street so as not to leave my motor oil calling card on Janis’s driveway. The night breeze stiffened my steamy damp hair. My car, already frigid, started after the second attempt. I turned the blower on high and directed the louvers toward my face, hoping my hair would dry on the drive home. I was about to pull away from the curb when I saw Janis running headlong out of the house, her robe flapping and turban undone. She sprinted barefoot across the front lawn, heedless of the snow, banged on my front passenger window, and screamed “Mad’s gone!”

I killed the engine and circled around the car. Janis, hysterical, implored the sky in a panicked rage. Lights were coming on in nearby homes. I put my arm around her and hurried her back into the house.

The first thing I noticed was the jewel box, lying open and empty but for a few flakes of blood on its cotton lining. Janis had beaten me upstairs to Mad’s room. I followed the sound of her cries, animal in their intensity.

The room was cold. Janis had thrown herself down on the bed and was having some kind of third-act Medea breakdown, pounding her fists into Mad’s pillow. I could see the condensation of her breath in the chill night air. I stuck my head out the open window. One of those old TV aerial towers stood within easy reach of the sill.

Two sets of footprints began at the base of the tower leading around the house to the street in front. One set was Mad’s chunk-heel boot print stalking away. The other was larger, a work boot perhaps; it was difficult to tell by moonlight. Near where the footprints began was a rectangular swipe in the snow—the size of a suitcase thrown down from a second-story window. Two swerving parallel lines began there and made an uneven trail beside Mad’s footprints on the side opposite the work boot prints: Mad dragging her own suitcase. I closed the window again, sat down on the bed beside Janis, and rubbed her back, trying to console this woman I had so lately pissed on.

The decor in the room was early Addams Family. Nearly everything left in the closet was black. Drawers stood open and rifled. Janis sat up; we embraced. Janis noticed something. Springing up, she crossed the room and inspected Mad’s desk and the empty terrarium. “Her lap top’s gone,” she wailed. “And Samael, too!” Somehow it seemed all the confirmation she needed that Mad wasn’t coming home again.

One thing confounded me. “Why not just walk downstairs and out the front door?”

Janis screwed up her face. Her eyes reddened with that stare a woman has when she’s fighting tears. “Because I locked it with a double-bolt the way I do every night to keep her in. I have the only key. She’s been grounded for a month except for babysitting.”

“I wondered about the bars outside the downstairs windows. You don’t see too many of those outside of East Saint Louis.”

“I have my reasons.”

“Aren’t you afraid of fire?”

“I’m afraid of eternal fire. For Mad’s sake, that is. Madeleine is headstrong and rebellious. Her flesh is willful and wanton. There’s no one else who can control her. She’s part of me. And now she’s gone.”

“I can’t figure you out, Janis. All these years I’ve pictured you as a devout Catholic, and yet here we are. It doesn’t fit with what you and I did tonight, you know? Or what we’ve been doing for the past five years.”

She turned sharply. As she marched out the door, I heard her say in a furious stage-whisper, “Complaining? Why don’t you go home and complain to your wife?” I was about to follow her and apologize when she spun around.

“You have trouble putting things in perspective, you know, Ricky? Not to mention a few problems with women that would take too long to analyze right now. In case you haven’t noticed, my only child’s been abducted five minutes ago. And now you’re sitting here accusing me of being a hypocrite? Asshole!” There was a butch roar in her voice at the end.

“Maybe I’d better go.”

“Yeah, maybe you’d better. The damage is done, isn’t it? The fact is, you tagging along after me upstairs was what made her leave in the first place. But why should that cause you any concern, family man? Why should that disturb your domestic tranquility?”

I stalked downstairs to the front door and turned the knob. Locked. After a moment I turned to see Janis descending the stairs toward me, the redness of her lips a crime of passion, her hair dark as obsidian.

“Don’t leave yet, all right?” There was no more threat in her voice, only a contrite tone I figured was her way of making up with me. I drew near enough to seal her apology with a lewd kiss.

Before I could begin, she gently pushed me away and in a whisper said, “John will be here any moment. I called him as soon as I found Mad missing.”

I thought of John’s handkerchief still in my pocket, soiled with a telltale smudge of Bitch Lips. John’s finding us together in his spotlight.

Someone hammered at the front door. Through the peephole, I saw a fisheye view of Diaz, one arm leaning against the doorjamb, turning to have a second look at my car parked on the street in front of Janis’s house.

“He’s here,” I told Janis, who disappeared momentarily, then returned with a small key. She paused to tie the sash of her robe and smooth her hair before opening the door to him. At that instant I sprang for the empty jewel box. I replaced the lid and stuffed the box into my coat pocket just as Diaz’s spit-shined number twelve’s strode into Janis’s living room. I tried to picture a man about his size leading Madeleine across the snowy lawn and away into the night.

“Show me her room,” Diaz said, looking strangely at Janis and me. His eyes narrowed their focus on me when I volunteered. I led the way up the stairs, feeling his heavy tread on the steps behind me. Janis followed. “What’s missing?” he asked Janis as soon as we’d entered Mad’s room.

“Just some clothes, costume jewelry, underthings—well, she never wore any, really—and I guess her suitcase,” Janis replied, turning slowly to inventory the room. “She took her laptop with her, too. And Samael’s gone—that’s her pet snake.”

“Got a thing for reptiles, huh? Me, I can take them or leave them.” Diaz leaned his big head out the bedroom window and looked at the TV tower that had served as Mad’s elopement trellis.

“Anybody touch that tower lately?”

“No. Why?”

“I’ll go get a print kit out of the car in a minute,” Diaz said. He pointed to the tower. “Those damn things are a home security risk.”

“Aren’t you going to go put out an APB or something?” I said.

He paused before saying, “I called in a description of her on the way over. Patrol cars’ll keep an eye out. You never know what you’re liable to spot on routine patrol if you keep your eyes open. Know what I mean?” I decided not to tell him how to do his job anymore.

“She fool around much online?” Diaz asked.

Janis shrugged. “No more than any other bright teenager.”

“That much, huh? Think she could have met somebody in a chat room?”

Janis’s expression told all of us she had no idea. She rapped her forehead with the heel of her hand. “I’m so stupid! God! I almost forgot—I have a child identikit CD ROM for her. It has her fingerprints and all kinds of other identifying information. I had it done several years ago, never thinking I’d ever need it.”

“Great. Better give it to me now.”

Janis turned to me. “Ricky, you brought her home tonight after babysitting. Did she say anything strange to you at all, anything that might give John a clue?”

“Babe, you got any coffee in this house?” Diaz asked her. “I got me a sudden jones for some java.”

“I’ll go make some fresh. It’ll just be a minute.”

Diaz closed the bedroom door discreetly behind her before confronting me. “What’re you trying for, Counselor—some kind of weird mother-daughter three-way action?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

He gestured toward the door. “I’m talking about her all ready for beddy-bye, you still here shower-fresh an hour later, and the hot-pants daughter packing her things and climbing out a second-story window with everybody too busy to notice. You see any promising clues in any of that? By the way, where’s my handkerchief?”

I fished it out of my pants pocket and handed it to him.

“May be some DNA on this,” he said, trying me for a reaction.

“Janis asked me to stay on for moral support,” I said. “And if my hair’s still damp, it’s because we—Diane and I—went in the hot tub at Kokker’s tonight.”

At the mention of that name, Diaz shot me a look.

“Well, I’m here now,” he said. “I’ll give Janis all the moral support she needs. Why don’t you run along home now to the wife? She’s probably all tuckered out from that hot tub party.”

“I’d better say goodnight to Janis.”

He moved me toward the door. His hand on my elbow meant business. “I’ll say your goodnights for you.”

“But I—”

He spun me around. I thought he was about to cuff me across the mouth. He had a faraway look in his eye I took for a sadistic pre-beating trance. Instead, he said, “I saw my wife die by inches.”

“I’m sorry, John. It’s been how many years?”

“It doesn’t get any easier. Janis’s the only person who… can make me forget my wife, you know?”

“I know you’ll never forget Ellen.”

His eyes got even wider. “Oh, but I want to sometimes, Ricky. See, that’s the thing. I carry it around like a dirty Polaroid, that mental snapshot of her that last day in the hospital bed with all the tubes pumping poison into her. She looked like an unwrapped mummy. Me telling the doctors they’re giving her too much pain medicine, it’s liable to kill her. And the doctor taking me aside, saying, you know, ‘There’s nothing more we can do, we just treat the pain with higher and higher morphine dosages until she goes to sleep.’ Wanting me to go in with him on that, like a co-conspirator. That’s when it hit me. They were finally calling it quits. After all the vomiting from the chemo and all the burns and incontinence from the radiation, they were packing it in. Well, Janis helps me forget all that. The sitting at my wife’s bedside, watching the stuff going into her through a tube, wanting to rip out the needle and the whole works and get her the hell out of there—maybe find another doctor, another hospital, another chance. But instead just listening to the doctors and sitting there, waiting for her to OD. Watching her face muscles relaxing for the last time—her body not writhing in pain anymore, forever. Trying to think up new things to tell her, even though I knew I’d never get the chance. Janis helps me forget my wife.” His voice broke at the last. There were tears in his eyes. I patted him on the arm.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t you see, Ricky? I’d give anything to be going home right now just like you, only to Ellen all tuckered out from that hot tub. I hope you never need to forget your own wife like I do. So take my advice: stay away from Janis, before she makes you forget.”

“You have nothing to worry about from me.”

His expression told me he wasn’t so sure. He escorted me out without another word. Now wasn’t the time to ask him about Liz Hare. I replaced the gift bag of videos in the trunk behind the spare, fearing Diane’s reaction. It was a feeling I was getting used to.

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve – Casual Friday

 

I hadn’t expected Janis in the office on the first day after her daughter’s disappearance, but there she was in her glass cage working away when I came in at eight-thirty. Diane and I had finally gone to bed sometime after two A.M. I had kissed her on the corner of her mouth, but she lay there stiffly and didn’t respond. I lay awake for what seemed like hours beside her until she fell asleep. Diane always slept with her eyes open like slits. Anyone who didn’t know her like I did would swear she was lying awake and vigilant, but I recognized her heavy, even breathing. It had not been a pleasant return home.

“Where in the hell have you been?”

“Taking Mad home.” My voice trailed off.

She smelled my breath with all the presumption of a veteran drunkard’s wife.

“I didn’t stop off at any taverns,” I protested.

“What, then?” I stood there, silenced by this unaccustomed interrogation at the door. “What, Ricky? I’m listening. I’m your wife, remember? I think I have a right to know what my husband has been doing when he’s been gone more than two hours taking the babysitter home, and after he’s been drinking, to boot. It’s, what, a twenty-minute round trip?”

“Mad’s gone,” I said. “Run away. We think she’s not alone, either. Somebody helped her.”

Diane’s expression changed from rage and fear to compassion. “Run away? How? When?”

“Tonight. I was about to pull away from the curb when Janis came running out in her robe.”

Diane thought about that for a moment. I bitterly regretted the last three words. “You must have seen Mad leave the house then,” she said at last.

“No. It was that quick. She must have climbed out her upstairs window while Janis and I were…downstairs, sitting around talking.”

“I thought you said she was in her robe.”

“She must have changed while I was warming up the car.”

“The car had time to get cold? What could the two of you have found to talk about for so long?”

“You know, stuff at work, office scuttlebutt. That sort of thing.”

“I still don’t understand what took so long. Didn’t anybody call the police?”

“Of course we called the police. John’s there now. Can we both sit down, at least? I’m beat.”

“Maybe you ought to drive around and look for her. She couldn’t have gone far. Gosh, I feel responsible somehow.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing for the past hour and a quarter? I waited at the house until John got there, only because Janis was too hysterical to be left alone.”“Can you blame her?”

“As soon as John showed up, I started combing the neighborhood, driving around block by block.”

“That’s the smart thing to do, I suppose. But she must have made some noise. And how could she climb out a second-story window without either of you noticing? And why do you say she had help?”

So I told Diane about the locks on the doors and bars on the windows, the TV tower, and the two pairs of footprints leading away in the snow. It was like standing up to cross-examination, and I did have something to hide. It seemed to last for hours, and I handled it without resort to Crankenstein.

Next day as soon as I got to the office, I closed my door and tooted a line up each nostril, telling myself I hadn’t gotten enough sleep and owed the job an alert brain to make it through the day. Sure enough, the very next call I placed elicited a twenty-thousand-dollar offer on a case in Saint Louis County that wasn’t worth fifteen hundred bucks. The rest of the morning I couldn’t miss. By eleven-thirty I had racked up enough settlement offers to clear Mark Kane more than he deserved. Then the intercom beeped.

“A Mrs. Kokker to see you,” the receptionist announced. I only knew one Mrs. Kokker, and she didn’t have an appointment. Every male associate followed Sandra with his eyes when she came swinging down the hall.

She was color-coordinated, all black and blue: leather blouse black as a tar pit and held together by a single button straining to endurance at the base of her sternum, blue leather skirt split to upper thigh, and black spike-heel boots looking like they belonged on a hooker.

She sat down on one corner of my desk and crossed her legs. Her hip bumped up against the silver-framed family portrait taken last year when the Sears Charge still worked. After I’d cancelled three previous appointments, Diane and the kids had taken it without me. I had missed the sitting—working that day on something so urgently important I could no longer remember what it was. Now the picture looked like an ad for life insurance.

“Cute kids,” she remarked. “Hope ours will come out that cute.”

“I wasn’t expecting you, Sandra.”

“Funny, huh? You weren’t expecting me, but here I am expecting.” She nudged my arm with the toe of her shoe. “Ain’t that the living shits?”

“Don’t be vulgar.”

She still stared at the picture, making me nervous. “The little guys both well hung like their daddy? God, I do think about sex all the time, don’t I? You suppose my therapist was right after all? Maybe I am a sex addict.”

“Sandra, you ever think you might have too much time on your hands? Maybe you should consider doing some volunteer work.”

“What do you think I’m doing here this morning?”

Soon the Crankenstein would wear off and the opportunity would be lost. I knew the only way to handle Sandra was to give her what she wanted, and fast. But first, I had to move her off my desk.

I leaped up, scooped her into my arms in a fireman’s carry and dumped her onto the couch. She squealed with abandon and kicked out both legs. I couldn’t catch my breath. She seized my shoulders playfully and said, “Winded? Here, better bend down and put your head between my legs.”

Instead, I huffed and puffed my way over to the door and locked it, then shut off the light and drew the curtain. When I turned back around, she had reclined and hiked up her skirt to show me she had nothing on underneath. She put both hands between her legs and made her pussy talk, lip-synching in a squeaky puppet voice: “Know any good divorce lawyers?”

“I could see your lips move that time,” I said, staring at the huge prawn that was her clitoris.

“My husband’s too pissed off to fuck me. That means now’s your chance, dude.” Still with the Punch and Judy show delivery.

All kidding aside, a fear gripped me. Kirk pissed meant my job. She seemed to sense it.

“Looks like you the man, Ricky. Don’t worry. I can handle Kirk Kokker.”

“I can see that.”

She pointed one long, red-lacquered nail toward her right eye and the mouse she had tried to hide with concealer. “You mean this? Foreplay. You should see how he looks this morning. I creamed the little shit in a fair fight—gave him the beating of his life. But that’s nothing compared to what we’re going to do to him.”

“What do you mean ‘we?’”

“I want us to do something that’ll really piss him off, you know? Make him hate the both of us.” She nodded eagerly.

“Such as?”

“Come on, it’ll be fun. I need some aerobic activity to take the place of my workout. I was puking so much from a hangover that I couldn’t even do my Nautilus routine this morning. Kirk had to give me a Compazine shot in the ass to straighten me out. Now it’s your turn to give me a shot in the ass.”

“He’s not licensed to give injections,” I protested.

“The guy worships Satan, Ricky. He’s killed people—street people, mostly derelicts—experimenting with something he calls the Kokker maneuver. You think he’s scared over some bullshit chiropractor license violation? There’s only one way to handle a man like Kirk Kokker.”

“What’s that?”

“Out-Kokker him. Show him you’re not afraid of anything he’s into. Take last night, for instance. You showed him you’re not afraid to drive right into his house, get down and dirty with a little hot tub action, then rip him off on his own turf. Now it’s time to go one step further and butt-fuck his old lady right here in your office. The time for sneaking around is over. You’ll earn his respect, believe me.”

“Why would I want his respect?”

“Why not?” she shrugged. The leather skirt squeaked like a fart on the naugahyde couch. “Why would anybody lie down with the devil? Money? Power? Sex? Valet parking? I don’t know. You tell me.”

She released the lonely button that had been fighting the Battle of Thermopylae against the onslaught of her breasts. They heaved when she sighed and looked at me expectantly, challenging me. Out peeked the mole—the one like Janis’s. I knelt and reached for it, but she turned slightly and my knuckles brushed against the pendant instead. It felt greasy and cold when I rubbed it between my thumb and forefinger. I thought I heard women’s voices cry out in alarm. One of them was Diane’s. Strange and lurid urgencies stirred within me.

“Saddle up, cowpoke.” She positioned herself as though for a proctologist’s exam over the end of the coffee table and fetchingly twitched her bare butt at me. She was right. A Stairmaster ass was something money couldn’t buy. Or could it?

Sandra came fully equipped with a pastel assortment of Tex-Ass brand novelty rubbers and a tube of K-Y jelly. She directed me where to find it all in her purse. I reared up behind her. The loamy effluvium when I entered her opened up my nostrils like a fed horse in the morning. I cupped my hands under her heavy breasts; my wedding band tap-tapped in rhythm against the glass surface of the coffee table with my every thrust.

“Casual sex on casual Friday,” I said, my own voice unfamiliar to me, quavering with pure lust. “I think you may be right, Sandra, about your being a sex addict.”

“Takes one to know one,” she grunted.

As soon as I came, all passion fled from me like a dream upon awakening. I despised myself for mounting this woman whose tallow ass had drained me like a vampire.

The intercom sounded. “Your wife’s in the lobby, Mr. Galeer. Shall I send her on back?”

“Di’s meeting me here for lunch,” Sandra explained. “Girls’ day out, no spouses.” She watched with amused detachment as I leaped to my feet.

“Why don’t I go out and head her off at the pass?” she said. “Looks like you’re a tad indisposed.”

By the time I made it outside, the suite elevator doors were closing behind the two of them. The last thing I saw was Sandra’s triumphant secret smile. I’d run out so quickly I hadn’t noticed Diaz standing in Janis’s cubicle. His hand rested on Janis’s shoulder as she sat at her computer, wearing a SLU sweatshirt over faded blue jeans. She looked like she was on her way to a pep rally. When I passed by Janis’s glass house without making eye contact, he followed. I tried to ignore his steps closing on me in a leisurely foot pursuit down the wide corridor. I reached my office door before turning to face him.

“Look, if it’s about you wanting to reinforce what you said last night—”

He extended his hand in a handshake. “No hard feelings, okay? Everybody’s engine was running a little hot last night.”

I didn’t know what to say. “Thanks, John. No hard feelings. We both want the same thing here.”

“We both want Madeleine home.”

“That’s what I meant, yeah. How’s Janis doing?”

“Hanging in there. How’d you expect her to be after something like this happens?”

“Any leads?”

“You sound like a damn reporter. No, no leads yet. You have any ideas? Pertinent to the case, I mean.”

“Look, John, I’ve known both of you for years. I’m not interested in Janis,” I lied. “I just work here, all right? I’m one of the enlisted men just like you. So lighten up, will you?”

He looked away down the hall toward Janis’s cubicle but said nothing. I didn’t think he believed me. To change the subject, I asked, “You made any headway in that other disappearance? You know, Gwendace Fox?”

“Now that you mention it, we did get an unusual call from one of the local no-tells outside of Belleville about three o’clock this morning. Seems one of their guests checked out without ever leaving the room. Only this one wasn’t your ordinary DB pickup.”

“Let’s talk in here.”

He walked into my office and flopped down in the client’s chair. “The Fox broad checks into the Sandman Motel just after dark a few nights ago, alone. No baggage. Last night the clerk gets notified her credit card’s declined. Exceeded her limit.”

“I know the feeling. Happened to us two years ago on vacation.”

“Be glad the rest of this didn’t happen to you.”

“Go on.”

“So the clerk calls the room and there’s no answer. This is around midnight. He keeps calling the room every hour or so. Then, around two-thirty, he heads back there. It’s way at the far end of the place—all the other rooms in that whole wing vacant that night—nobody close enough to hear anything. He tries the door. Whaddya know. It’s unlocked.”

Diaz gazed over my head toward the courthouse vista. I said, “Don’t keep me in suspense. What did he find in there?”

“It was the Fox broad all right: nude and stone-cold dead, stretched out in bed with her eyes open, posed kind of like Marilyn Monroe in that fifties calendar shot, if you’re old enough to remember.”

“Find anything else?”

“Thanks for reminding me, Counselor. Yeah, there was one more little detail, now that you mention it. Somebody had taken the trouble to lop off both her tits.”

“Like Carla Tremayne? The case you called the holy card murder?”

“That’s right. Only this time, the victim is Gwendace Fox and the holy card on the victim’s body is Saint Agnes, not Saint Agatha like the first one. You ever read your Lives of the Saints that much? Guess not, huh? You never had a good Catholic school education inflicted on you, I bet.”

Stunned, I shook my head no. Either I looked eager to learn, or I bore a striking resemblance to the insouciant “What, me worry?” gentleman.

“If you had,” he went on, “you’d get the connection. Saint Agatha had her hooters hacked off just like our victim here. Both her and St. Agnes were imprisoned in brothels as persecution by the Romans. A mutilation murder with a Catholic psychosexual twist makes me think crazy, jealous lover/stalker. Liz Hare definitely leads that pack again. Only there’s just one problem. Want to know what it is? Sure you do.”

I could see two problems. Number one, Liz was my client. I couldn’t let her talk to Diaz if she were a murder suspect. Number two, I was the one who’d put her with Diaz in the first place. I’d given him a valid non-custodial reason to talk to her about Gwendace without even Mirandizing her, using the disarming pretext that he was working for her. Hell, he’d probably already talked to her by this time—done a non-custodial interrogation for which I’d soon be sending her a bill. But talking to her wearing his civil investigator’s hat made any conversations privileged under attorney/client. Or did it? I’d have to hit the law books on that one.

“What’s the problem?”

“The same damn bloody fingerprint was on both the Saint Agnes card from last night and the Saint Agatha card from almost twenty years ago, and for certain the print’s not Hare’s.”

“So you have two identical bloody fingerprints, one at each crime scene, both unidentified, and the killer used the same M.O. each time. A good defense attorney would trash any case you tried to make against Hare and ruin Bobbi Cox’s perfect record. Even I know that, and I don’t do felony.”

“I never said the prints were unidentified.”

He must have seen my eyes widen. He paused before adding, “It’s just that the identification poses a certain vexing question of its own.”

“Such as?”

He studied his manicure. “When I scanned the Fox holy card print into AFIS, I got back two direct hits. One was for the first holy card murder case, which only confirmed my suspicions.”

“And?”

“The other was a match off a child Identikit that came up in conversation last night.”

“You don’t mean—”

“I do mean, Counselor. Without a doubt, the fingerprints on both holy cards belong to Madeleine Mezzanotte.”

“She’s barely eighteen years old! How could her prints be at a twenty-year-old murder scene?”

“I see you’ve begun to appreciate my conundrum,” Diaz said.

“The identikit must have the wrong fingerprints, or else somebody switched them at AFIS.”

“No chance. Police technicians take the fingerprints at the station and maintain chain-of-custody like any other investigation until after the prints are scanned in. And AFIS is as reliable as the FBI. I don’t know about you, but that’s good enough for me.”

“I suppose I’d better break the news to Liz,” I offered. “About Gwendace.”

“Not unless you want to get charged with obstruction,” he said.

“You can’t go posing as her agent then, or this office’s agent, either,” I said. It came out sounding like a playground threat to take my ball and bat and go home, and it didn’t do a thing to him.

“You know, that’s the second time in what, twelve hours, you’ve told me how to do my job, Counselor. I’m warning you not to call her or go to see her until I’ve had my shot at her.”

“Bullshit! I’m her lawyer. I’ve got every right to talk to her—even tell her not to talk to you. Especially tell her not to talk to you.” My heart doing a Led Zeppelin drum solo in my ears, I picked up the phone, then realized I didn’t know the number for Fox & Hare. I pulled my drawer open for the directory, then punched in the number. Got the answering machine. Of course. With Gwendace gone, Liz had to close the shop for lunch; there were no other employees to spell her. While Diaz stared me down, I left a message instructing her not to talk to him until she called me first.

Artie’s Crankenstein was filling me with unaccustomed Dutch courage. Even Diaz seemed impressed.

“You got big ones, I’ll say that for you,” he said. “But you go sticking them in an ongoing murder investigation, they may get chopped off. I’m gonna interrogate Liz Hare and shove both these murders right up her ass.”

“Right up whose ass, John?” In the heat of the moment, neither of us had heard Janis slip in.

“Sorry you had to hear that language, babe,” Diaz said, a latter-day cavalier to his lady fair. “Ready for lunch?” He rose, took both her hands in his, and kissed her. It was no more than a brush on the cheek, yet it enraged me. I stood to walk out with them. “I’d ask you to join us, Counselor,” Diaz added, “but I know you always brown-bag it, what with wifey-poo and four kids at home and all.”

The three’s-a-crowd suggestion that I couldn’t afford lunch further infuriated me. Janis told Diaz she had to get her purse and she’d meet him at the elevator. After he had started down the hall, she threw her arms around me and kissed me. I slipped my hands into the back pockets of her jeans and squeezed with an invited familiarity. She was firm and taut like Diane, but her flesh seemed cooler—longer and sleeker in the hip lines—when I caressed her there.

Her kiss and another quick snort of Crankenstein carried me at cruising speed through the rest of the afternoon. Calls speed-dialed home every forty-five minutes or so went unanswered. Diane was incommunicado, probably having lost track of time cruising the Galleria, Plaza Frontenac, and whatever rich-lady boutiques her new best friend Sandra could steer her to.

It was nearly seven. Before leaving for the night, I scooped up the plastic wastebasket liner and took it down the back stairs to the rear alley. The last one out as usual, I’d already locked the suite and set the silent alarm.

More than once, Celestal and Misty had forgotten to punch in the code before cleaning the office late at night and wound up facing down the drawn .357 magnum of some zits-ablaze nineteen-year-old security guard going for his merit badge in kill-zone target shooting.

In the alley, I separated the Tex-Ass rubber from the other wastebasket trash that might have my name on it and tossed the soiled condom into the dumpster. It made a tympanic echo that resonated like hell in the quiet alley—or maybe it was only my fevered imagination. I hurried away from it, circling around to the front of the building.

A silver Caprice with a police aerial sat idling in the slot closest to the revolving doors in front. I walked past it, not looking up, worrying about Diane’s absence.

Diaz tapped the Caprice’s siren. The Crankenstein exaggerated my startle reflex. I heard his laugh over the whine of the power window.

 

 

 

Chapter Thirteen – Urine the Money

 

“Wanna grab a quick cocktail? You look like you could use one.”

Diaz took East Main past Fox & Hare. The next block he turned left then flipped on his revolving red light. He sped through the Hexenbukel District, cop tires screaming like a band saw against brick streets built for horse and buggy. I cringed and stared straight ahead at every blind intersection, where German houses crowded up to the narrow sidewalks.

“I know a place where they serve good cocktails and give a law enforcement discount,” he said. “Sphinx Lounge. Ever hear of it? Cops all call it the Sphincter Club. Then they drink there.”

We had left Belleville behind. Diaz sped along a two-lane country blacktop through one blighted area after another. Mile after mile, we passed block-long scrap heaps and smoldering tire graveyards that glowed like the stoked fires of hell. Beyond us, in the mist, I saw a searchlight sweeping the skies with all the dramatic buildup of a Hollywood premiere. A searchlight in the middle of hell’s half acre.

Diaz picked up speed. As though road testing the shocks in his county-issue unmarked cruiser, he flew over a dip and rise in the blacktop, treating me to a quick jolt of simulated weightlessness.

Suddenly, there it was. A little piece of Las Vegas glitz transported into the midst of fall-plowed corn and soybean fields. The Sphinx Lounge. I’d heard rumors about the place and knew of its nasty reputation but had never been there.

We had to walk through a metal detector just like the one at the courthouse. The ten-dollar cover seemed a bit steep, but Diaz assured me it’d be worth it. I broke a fifty and paid for both of us. The capacity crowd was noisy enough for a cockfight, but the cavernous club soaked up most of the racket.

“So what’d you find out from Liz?” I asked. “You must have caught her at home before she checked her messages.”

Diaz waved me off. “It’s amateur night at the Sphincter,” he said, “and I don’t feel like talking shop.”

A waitress took our drink orders. Mine was a rum and Coke. I finished it before Diaz even got around to twirling the ice in his first C.C. and Seven.

“This is the life, eh, Counselor?” Diaz said. “Beats the shit out of hustling barely legal girls in the back seats of cars, am I right?”

I wanted to remind him it had been the front seat but didn’t feel like talking shop, either. Instead, I summoned our waitress. She boomeranged over to our table, and I ordered fresh drinks for both of us. I handed her a twenty between my middle and index fingers and told her to keep the change. There wasn’t any.

A dumb country song came on over the speakers and the first amateur took the stage. Don’t sit up close at the ballet.

Diaz’s mouth stood agape as the dancer lay down on a mat and commenced spreading her legs for us in a series of maneuvers more gynecological than terpsichorean. He caught her eye in the midst of a partial sit-up, pointed to her, then himself, and pantomimed a drinking motion. She nodded eagerly. The rest of her number was directed only at him.

“Just trying to be sociable,” he said. “Looks to me like she’s painfully shy.”

She finished out her set with what might best be described as a barefoot and bare-assed clog dance. Her name was Cheryl. She ordered a split of champagne that cost me sixty dollars without the tip and said it tasted like “sody.” She lived in Dupo and worked at the Sphinx Lounge as a waitress three nights a week.

“Got a car, hon?” Cheryl asked Diaz.

“No, I hitchhiked.”

“Lookin’ for a car date?”

“How much you charge for a car date, Cheryl?” Diaz asked.

“One at a time or both a yous together?”

“Let’s say both of us. What’s your businessman’s special?”

“Buy me a few drinks first, Mr. Businessman. Then maybe we’ll talk a little business. Monkey business, that is.” She winked at me.

The three of us proceeded to get ripped. With every drink, Cheryl got better and better looking.

Diaz switched over to bottle beer, trying to taper off. His car keys lay on the cabaret table between us. I waited for the beer to do its work before making my move, meantime talking trash with Cheryl. Twenty minutes later, Diaz left to go to the can.

“How much do you charge for a car date, Cheryl?” I heard myself asking her. There was so much noise that I had to repeat myself, afraid the next table might overhear.

Cheryl studied me warily. “You sure you’re a lawyer? I mean, your buddy’s a cop, and shit.”

“Wanna see my bar card?”

“I’d rather see a picture of Ben Franklin in my hand.”

“I was thinking more General Grant.”

“Meet me in the parking lot out back, big spender. Then we’ll see what you got.”

I grabbed Diaz’s keys.

I had no trouble finding Diaz’s cruiser. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the inside of a police car, but this one had a radio, computer console, and enough other equipment to make you claustrophobic just sitting there, let alone what I had in mind. The front seat was out. I keyed open the rear passenger door and held it for her. She looked behind her, then warily scanned the parking lot before climbing in. I followed eagerly. Somebody must have removed the inside door handle. Preoccupied, I pulled the door closed with my fingertips by the molding at the base of the window. It slammed shut like a cell door.

“Ramses don’t want us girls messing out in the parking lot. Anybody asks, me and you smoked a joint, okay?”

“Who is this Ramses?”

“You got any weed on you?” Cheryl asked, ignoring my question. “I could get real friendly behind some jamokie-smoke right now, if you was to offer.”

“Sorry. Fresh out.”

She made a face. “We better get busy, then. You got something for me?”

I began unzipping my fly. She said with contempt, “No. The way it works, first you slip me that fifty you promised.”

I fumbled for my wallet. It was hard to get at in the close quarters of the back seat. My shoulder bumped against the bullet-proof plexiglas that blocked us off from the front.

“Whyn’t you start the engine and turn on the heater?” Cheryl shivered, naked under her coat. “It’s freezing in here.”

I checked my wallet. Thirty-five dollars and a coupon for Red Lobster. Frantic, I checked my door, then hers. No handles. No way out.

I didn’t tell Cheryl about the locked doors right away. She got angry enough when she found out about the short money.

“Say again? Thirty-five bucks? You bring me out here to freeze my ass off for thirty-five dollars? Goddamn fucking asshole!” When words failed her at last, she flailed wildly at me with her fists. One caught me on the bridge of the nose. My eyes blurred and teared.

I’d never hit a woman before in my life. Instead of spoiling a perfect record, I leaned against her with all my weight, struggling to pin her against the door and at the same time trying to clamp my hands around her wrists—trying somehow to force them behind her back. She was a big woman with a lot of fight in her and I’d put it there. She had no reason to pull any punches.

“I don’t want to fight you, Cheryl,” I said, my voice straining from exertion. “You hear me? I don’t want to fight you. Truth is, we’re locked in here.”

She broke away with her right hand and clouted me in the center of my forehead. We both yelled “ow” in unison. She held her hand up and inspected the already reddened and swelling knuckle of her pinky just long enough for me to grab that wrist again, whip it behind her back, and jam it securely under the seat cushion where it couldn’t do me any more damage.

“Now calm down,” I panted.

Cheryl screamed “Rape!” loud as a police whistle inches from my ear. Frantic, I shoved her harder. Clamping my chin over the nape of her neck, I prayed she wouldn’t come up with the idea of turning her head and biting my ear off. I twisted her other arm behind her, wedging her left hand behind the seat cushion. My thumbs bore down on the pulse-points of both wrists. Soon her hands would be numb and useless. Finally, out of breath, she said, “Okay, okay.”

“Are you going to behave yourself?” She closed her eyes and nodded rapidly. I eased my grip on her wrists.

Cheryl looked up—her eyes darting back and forth like she was feeling around for something—and said, “Hold the fuckin’ phone.” She withdrew one hand, shaking the pins and needles out of it. Her other hand came out more gingerly, grasping the tip of something white from under the seat cushion of the cruiser.

A joint about the size of a tampon. Some prisoner must have stashed it there after getting lucky in a haphazard pat-down. In Cheryl’s hands, it would never see inventory.

“Got a match?” she asked. Cheryl deep-dragged on the joint. About thirty seconds later, she let out a hysterical, high-pitched laugh—like air squeaking out of an inflated balloon. She smoked the joint down to a tiny roach without another word, then wet her thumb and forefinger, extinguished it with a pinch, and ate it.

We sat in sullen silence after that for what may have been an hour, watching the windows steam up from our breath. Finally she shifted in her seat. “I’m fittin’ to bust,” she griped. “Your buddy doesn’t get his ass out here soon with a search party, there’s gonna be a little accident. I’m gonna take a major goddamn leak right here in this car.”

“Don’t let me stop you,” I said under my breath.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” she sneered. “Yeah, I just bet you would, pervert.” She brightened. “Cost you thirty-five dollars and that there supper coupon for a box seat. And I do mean a box seat.”

I figured if I waited much longer, I’d catch the show for free anyway, so I declined. It didn’t make her any happier.

“I suppose you’re too stupid to bring my fucking cigarettes out here either, aren’t you? Probably left them lying on the table back inside along with your half a brain. Why do I always have to hook up with the dumbest shit in the club?”

I didn’t have an answer to that one.

“Matches but no cigarettes. God damn you to hell,” Cheryl muttered. She squatted down on the floor, straddled the hump, and with a heavy-lidded expression, let go.

I jerked my legs and feet away from her bovine stream. The champagne had certainly lost its sparkle, but what it lacked in bouquet and effervescence, it more than made up for in volume. I thought it would never end, but after a jeroboam or so, it petered out. With remarkable celerity, Cheryl whipped the handkerchief from my breast pocket in a flourish, went between her legs, and sopped up the splashed-on excess.

“You keep it,” I demurred after she had finished and offered the handkerchief back to me.

“Whatever trips your trigger,” she shrugged, tossing it in a heap onto the saturated carpet. “Wanna play drop the hanky while we wait for your cop friend?”

At the word cop, the door flung open on Cheryl’s side; she nearly rolled out of the car. I heard Diaz’s voice say, “Aw, cripe!” Steam still rose off the center hump in the back seat. Cheryl began bitching right away—how she was going to sue the county for false imprisonment—until she caught the look on Diaz’s face.

“Get the hell out of here,” he roared at her. “You’re lucky I don’t book you for possession. And public pissing. Hoosier bitch.” She ran, coat flapping, until she had nearly rounded the corner of the building. Then she broke into a self-possessed stroll and gave each of us a dismissive gesture with her middle finger upraised. Diaz, hands on hips, was too distracted with airing out the back seat to notice.

“Can’t take you anywhere,” Diaz said. “How many times a week I gotta pull you outa cars in compromising circumstances? Hell, it ain’t even ten o’clock yet.”

I crossed my arms, stared down at his spit-shine, and waited for the lecture. I didn’t have to wait long.

“You want to know your problem, Counselor? You got no moral compass. You’re one of these guys thinks appearances are everything. It’s like a disease with you lawyers. Well, let me tell you something: Everything’s not always what it appears. Appearances can be deceiving. Now, you take this fat piece of trash—”

“Nothing happened,” I protested like a schoolboy.

“That’s not the point, though, is it? You wanted something to happen. What’d you do, run out of cash before it did?”

My expression must have told him he was right. “That’s what it was, wasn’t it? I thought so. You were spending it like a drunken sailor in there tonight, no disrespect to the Navy.” He shook his head in amazement and looked up at the moon. “Don’t you know that places like this are look-but-don’t-touch? You wanna get Ramses Ware good and pissed at you, just do like you did tonight—make a disturbance with one of his girls right outside his club. That way you’re dissing him personally and fucking with his livelihood at the same time.”

“Who’s Ramses Ware?”

“The ruler of all you survey, Counselor. Raymond a.k.a. Ramses Ware. One dude you do not want to cross, trust me on that.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning borrow money from him sometime. Ramses does all his own collections. You think you got credit problems? The first time you come up short with Ramses, you really come up short. Rumor has it he’ll slice your cock clean off for collateral.”

“Who told you I have credit problems?”

“You’re not listening, Counselor. Don’t fuck with Ramses. That’s my point. He’s first generation gang-banger off the mean streets of East Saint Louis. You wanna sell ice in Saint Clair County, you gotta go to Ramses to okay the franchise. You wanna run whores? Same thing. Only Ramses is too damn smart to shit in his own mess kit. He wants all his customers inside drinking and buying rounds—paying for conversation and a little fantasy—not out here with the girls in customers’ cars to the point where he could get closed down. No, Ramses runs a strictly clean joint here. That’s why there’s all the off-duty cops here.” He gave a world-weary sigh. “You gonna behave yourself now?” It was the same question I’d posed to Cheryl.

“If everything you say about this Ramses is true, why don’t you go arrest him?”

He looked at me like I’d just asked him to dance. “Why don’t I go arrest him? Why don’t I go arrest you? You, I caught in fragrant delight. Twice, as a matter of fact. Ramses, on the other hand, nobody’s ever caught. It’s all what you lawyers like to call guess, speculation, and conjecture.” He laughed. “Come on back inside, Elliott Ness. We could both use a drink right about now.”

 

 

 

Chapter Fourteen – Showboy

 

When Diaz went to the can again, an East St. Louis geisha with spider dreadlocks sat down at our table, took my hand in hers, and chafed it, her fingers scaly as a lizard’s skin.

“You up next?” I asked her. My mouth and tongue were getting in the way of my words.

She nodded her head slowly. “Sure wish I could make me some money.” She caught me staring at her breasts and said, “You like these?” A metallic, nasal laugh. She rubbed my tab-signing hand like it was a magic lamp.

I was about to ask her for her number when, over her shoulder, I saw an imposing black man seated ringside, wearing what could have been a twelve-hundred-dollar, athletic-cut blue suit. His shaved head gleamed in the dim, smoke-blue houselights. He wore wraparound shades and a buccaneer’s earring. His hands looked like they could crush a walnut or a throat with equal ease.

My companion moved her business hand to my knee, rubbed it, and repeated, “Sure wish I could make me some money.” Diaz picked that exact moment to return.

“Shine on outa here,” he told her. “Kwanzaa’s over.”

“Who you callin’ a shine, motherfucker?” the woman snarled. Diaz flipped his badge flat on the table, not even looking at her. She dragged her chair loud enough to be heard over the music and taunt-walked slowly past the runway until she reached the bald man with the shades. She leaned and whispered something angry to him, jabbing an index finger back in our direction.

The bald man never took his eyes off the stage. By way of an answer, he reached with proprietary familiarity between the woman’s thighs. I saw him seize and twist muscle like turning a doorknob. Her face contorted in silent agony, but she had to stand there and take it—and it lasted a while. Finally, he let go of her with a rough shove that sent her stumbling for a couple of steps. She managed to regain her balance as well as her sang-froid before disappearing into the crowd.

“Who is that guy?” I asked Diaz, even though I knew the answer.

“That, my friend, is Ramses Ware, and this is you coming on to whores in his club, which is one of the things I distinctly remember warning you not to do.”

“How did I know she was a whore?” I said. It sounded weak and plaintive.

He snorted. “Right. That was a tough call to make, what with her dressed like a secretary and going for your balls under the table and all. And what was that tribal styling gel she had in her hair? Cow flop? Smelled even worse.”

I pulled at my drink. It was nearly two A.M. The invisible emcee introduced a new amateur named Juno. The slender young thing with the blond bob who’d come around and collected a ten in “jukebox” money from me was now onstage. She had dancer’s legs and knew how to use them. Diaz, perhaps bored with the parade of recycled cocktail waitresses, applauded and cheered above the crowd. Juno danced to a pop medley, really shaking everything. I thought Diaz was going to go nuts when Juno bent over toward our table—her smallish breasts tortured and teased upward by a ribbed bustier—carelessly giving us a generous glimpse of her nipples peeking out over lacy meringue. Two songs later she had discarded the thong and skirt. She jumped first one cheek of that beautiful bare ass, then the other. Diaz hooted for more. He took out his wallet and waved a bill at Juno.

For the big finale, the cross-dressing twink spun around and displayed it all for Diaz’s benefit. Juno’s big cock looked like an oversized rubber chicken dangling an arm’s length from Diaz’s face.

The roar of the crowd became laughter, derisive and jeering. Diaz, his head lolling back on the runway with a ten-spot folded lengthwise clamped between his teeth, sprang to attention at the sight of Juno’s meat swinging overhead. Juno laughed open-mouthed at him in at loud, testosterone-laced natural voice and gave Diaz a personalized pelvic thrust, a bump-and-grind that got the whole weight of his equipment spinning around in a circle. The crowd groaned like a surfeited vaudeville audience calling for the hook.

Diaz grabbed his keys, shouted, “Fuck this,” and stalked out. I chased after him up the aisle; after all, he was my ride. But as we left, I caught sight of Ramses’ impassive visage turning slowly toward us—eyes hidden behind the shades—with an almost imperceptible smile as if to say, Gotcha, motherfucker! Then my alcohol-flooded synapses made the connection. The face hadn’t been the focus, but I’d seen that face before.

Ramses had played the male lead in Sandra Pulls the Train.

The moment I made the connection, Ramses seemed to nod, confirming everything I already knew as if by telepathy.

It was cold in the car. Even after the heater kicked in, my teeth kept chattering like a gibbering death’s head.

“Boy, some amateur night, huh?” Diaz was saying. “How do you like that fucking Ramses, though, playing me with a ringer like that? Guess I’ll be catching a ration of shit come Monday.”

I fought the drunk-sick urgency to vomit.

“I sure hope Janis don’t get wind of it, you know?” Diaz went on.

“I won’t tell Janis anything,” I said, “as long as you don’t tell Diane.” I didn’t feel like laughing, but Diaz chortled and punched me playfully in the meat of the shoulder.

“Yeah, that Janis,” he mused a moment later, “that’s one fine-lookin’ lady.”

“No argument there.”

“Wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating crackers, know what I mean?”

“Wouldn’t be right.”

“And what with that daughter of hers gone missing, I’ll probably wind up spending a lot more time over at her place, you know, consoling her and wiping away her tears and that.”

“I know what you mean.”

“That’s not to say I’d ever take selfish personal advantage of a tragic domestic situation like Mad’s disappearance, you understand.”

“Of course not.”

“But sometimes one thing leads to another.”

“I hear you.”

“Besides, once I find her kid—and I will find her—Janis’ll naturally wanna show me her gratitude.”

“Naturally,” I agreed.

“Fuckin’ A,” he observed.

We had reached my block. The house was dark. “Maybe,” I said, my hand reaching for the door handle, “pretty soon you’ll be checking out Janis’s mole.”

He slammed on the brakes, the cruiser jerking to a tire-screeching stop parallel to Diane’s shop windows. “The fuck you talking about, Janis’s mole?”

“I—I don’t know.”

“How the hell would you know anything about that goddamn mole!” He slammed the wheel with the heels of both hands.

“John, I—”

“Get out a’ the car.”

“You’ve got the wrong idea, man.”

“Must have thought it was pretty damn funny, letting me go on and on about her,” he said with a deadly calm. “Get your ass outa the goddamn car before I throw it out.”

My guts roiled. I had barely enough time to fling the door open and let go into the gutter. I coughed and spit, gasping for breath, then heaved another load.

He waited until I had finished before saying, “Stay the hell away from her, understand? You got a wife. I don’t. You get any strange urges to do something with Janis, stay home and do it to your old lady instead.”

 

 

 

Chapter Fifteen – The Big O

 

Our house was dark. Our car was gone. After a moment, I realized that I had left it parked downtown when I took off with Diaz.

A late-model red Mercedes sports car was parked in my spot behind the house, parallel with the van and hidden from the street. The vanity plate caught my eye: THE BIG O. Seven letters. How had Sandra gotten it past the Secretary of State’s bluenoses? More to the point, what was Sandra doing at our house at two-thirty in the morning with the lights out?

I slipped my key into the back door lock as quietly as possible. The familiar house smell and rush of warmth brought on another wave of nausea. I fought it off. Best to creep into bed and let everybody sleep until morning. I slipped off my shoes at the door, then carried them, walking on tiptoe like every drunken husband in every Saturday Evening Post cartoon I could recall from my childhood. Past the icon parade stand—could they see my shame in the dark?—careful to stay on the runner and avoid the creaking floorboard roughly parallel to Saint Alexander Nevsky. Up the stairs, pausing at the landing to listen to the quiet house. I undressed there; the rustling of clothes might rouse Diane from a no doubt angry slumber.

I sneaked into our bedroom naked. The door hinge creaked.

Diane sat up in bed. The streetlight shining through the mini-blind louvers traced Zebra stripes over the topography of her nude body. Without turning on the lamp, she stared at me with a rage she must have taken to bed with her.

“Where the hell have you been?” she said. Someone sighed dreamily next to her, then sat up. Sandra, also nude, had taken my place in our bed. The same Zebra stripes outlined her ample cleavage.

“What’s Sandra doing here?” Always answer a question with a question to keep them off-balance. Only this time it didn’t work.

“Answer me, damn you to hell!” Diane almost never cursed, and then never at me.

It was Sandra who reached over to switch on the lamp. Without bothering to pull up the sheet and cover herself, she said, “Just keeping a place warm for you, Dick.” She was sporting big blue shiners under both eyes this time.

“You’re drunk, aren’t you?”

Sometimes it’s best to say nothing. Especially when returning home from the Sphinx Lounge to an enraged spouse.

“Lighten up, Di,” Sandra said. “Boys will be boys, you know. At least he cares enough to bring it on home to momma.”

“Sandy’s going to be staying with us for a while,” Diane said coldly. “You see what that beast did to her?”

Sandra pointed to the shiners and twitched her eyebrows like Groucho.

She looked to Diane, then me, and said, “Well, three’s a crowd, I guess. Unless I’m outvoted?” Hearing nothing from either of us, she shrugged, then slid out from under the sheets. I watched her walk three slow, swaying steps to the door of the adjoining guestroom. It was what they call a Christian door, with bevel-edged wooden crosspieces in the center.

“I’ll help you get set up, Sandy,” Diane said, studiously ignoring me. I crawled into the spot Sandra had vacated. The two of them whispered and giggled behind the closed guest room door as I lay there trying to keep the bed from spinning.

Everything was too hot. I rolled first on one side, then the other, riding out the bedspins, but found no comfort. Finally the door to the darkened guestroom opened. I heard Sandra saying, “‘Night, Di.”

Diane whispered, “Night, Sandy.” Then the audible kiss.

I lurched to the master bath and grabbed the porcelain ring not a moment too soon. When it was over I lay on the cool tile floor. The touch of the cold bowl soothed me like the condensation from a glass of icy lemonade against my forehead on a sweltering July day. Sometime in the night, after one or another bout of dry heaves, I must have pulled the bathroom rug over my chest for a makeshift blanket.

 

 

I woke about seven, judging from the sunlight angling through the bathroom window. Someone had just flushed the toilet. I looked up to see Sandra towering over me, wearing Diane’s robe and doctoring her eyes in the mirror. Her stench was everywhere. In no hurry, she finished with her eyes and started brushing her teeth with Diane’s toothbrush.

“You sure know how to make a girl feel like part of the family, Dick. Wish Kirk could still get an early morning riser like that one you’re wearing.”

Another surge of vomit doubled me over the toilet. As my own spasmodic wheezing and coughing echoed in my ears, Sandra taunted, “Hey! I’m the one should be having the morning sickness around here!”

My hangover made going to the office out of the question. Leaving Sandra still working on herself in the bathroom, I slouched back to our bed. My place was newly warm again.

Sandra chose that moment to flounce out of our bathroom. “Hey, sleepyhead, time to rise and greet the morning sunshine,” she sing-songed. My head banged with a trepanning pain.

“Sandra,” I began, “I want you to stay out of our bed—”

“No you don’t, Dick,” she said, throwing herself prone and crossways over the bed to face me, her borrowed robe agape. Diane was down in the kitchen banging pots and slamming cabinet doors loud enough to be heard upstairs.

Sandra reached for my hand and stroked it, her blue-blackened eyes scary in their intensity. “You want all three of us here in this bed, admit it. It’s what all men want; I don’t have to be a mind reader, even though I am one.” She looked to me as though for validation.

“Diane would never go for it,” I whispered hoarsely, my throat painfully dry.

She smiled indulgently. “Maybe there’s things about Diane I know better than any man could—even you, Ricky. Secrets she might not even know she’s been keeping. Ever think of that?”

All I knew was that sleep would deaden the sick throbbing in my head and quell the surging nausea. “You want to talk about secrets? What the hell am I supposed to tell the kids when they ask me about your living here, sleeping with their mother? And when they ask about your license plate? That it means ‘The Big Orgasm’?”

“Is that what you think it means? Oh, Ricky!” She shook her head with amusement.

“I’m not talking about just that. It’s everything about your being here. I don’t know. It’s weird: all of us walking around naked in front of each other, using the same bathroom like we’ve been drafted into the same unisex army.”

“All behind closed doors,” she reminded me. “All the kiddies need to know is that Aunt Sandy’s here for a visit. You worry too much, Dick.” She crawled on her elbows toward me. Her robe yawned open.

“Diane would never go for it,” I repeated.

“You let me worry about Diane,” she said. “I’ll save your marriage, maybe even spice it up for you a little.” She planted a toothpaste-fresh kiss on my lips.

“What does it mean, then?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your vanity plate. What’s the Big O?”

“It’s the shape my mouth makes,” she said, “when I’m sucking a man’s cock. And the matching shape his mouth makes all the time I’m doing it.”

“You haven’t told Diane about us, have you?”

“What do you want me to tell her?”

“I don’t want you telling her anything.”

“That can be arranged,” Sandra said, climbing off the bed. “I’ll go see if Di needs any help down in the kitchen. Thanks for letting me stay, Dick. I’ll make it worth your while.”

I rolled over. My brain was like a corpse floating in oil. It seemed I had barely closed my eyes when I felt Sandra’s cool breath on my face again like a succubus. “By the way, did you happen to give you-know-who the, ah, item we discussed?”

“Why don’t you read my mind for the answer to that one?”

“Don’t be a smartass. It’s because of trying to help that bitch that I wound up on your doorstep last night. So I just want to make sure you gave it to her, is all.”

“I did.”

“Put it right in her hot little hands yourself?”

“You got it.”

“And of course you didn’t even sneak one tiny little peek inside the box, did you?” Sandra’s middle finger was riding my pulse—her lips and tongue caressing close by my carotid artery. She stopped. I felt her intake of breath. “Well? Did you?”

“Did I what?”

She raised herself up and regarded me suspiciously. “Come on, Dick. Did you or did you not look inside the fuck-nuts box before you gave it to her? Now is not the point in our relationship you want to start lying to me, man.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Not the right answer, Dick. Because some things are sacred, you know?”

“Spoken like a true Satanist.”

“Fuck you. I give you a simple request—”

“It was a quest.”

“Say what?”

“Janis called it a quest. It was all very mysterious.”

“Then do me a favor, okay, Dick?”

“What’s that?”

“Keep it that way. All very mysterious. As my attorney, you have to anyway, right?”

I nodded, my body screaming out for sleep. With that nod of assent, I suppose I became Sandra’s attorney. What the hell—I was already her lover as well as her roommate and the putative father of her unborn child. One thing still bothered me, though. “I thought you said you could cream Kirk Kokker in a fair fight.”

“Who said Kirk ever fights fair?” she said. “Get some sleep, Dick. You look like dog shit warming in a toaster oven.”

Nightmares invaded my fitful sleep after that. A child once more, I cowered under the sheets, hearing my mother’s muffled taunts and jeers until one strange male voice or another rose in a roar to meet hers. Shattering glass. The slap and thump of flesh and bone. Her screams in the night, getting what she had coming to her. Don’t let the bedroom light come on. Don’t let either of them remember me until morning, I prayed over and over to a Sunday school God I couldn’t quite remember—who’d abandoned me like an orphan.

When she was drunk, which was most of the time, I’d dreaded my mother’s kisses even more than her screams. I knew a beating would soon still the screams, as if something deep within her needed to be sated. Kisses on the other hand could without warning turn to anger, anger to rage, rage to blows. Most of all, there was a presence—vile and seductive—behind the drunken kisses, a nameless and disgusting abomination. Finally I awoke again, hangover barely manageable. Through the window that overlooked the driveway, I could see that Sandra’s car was already gone. I rounded the landing on the back stairs. Diane stepped inside the stairwell and blocked my path. I said the first thing that came to mind. “Before you say anything, hon, I want you to know I’m sorry about last night. As a matter of fact, I’m on my way to confession.”

“You son of a bitch.”

“At least you have your facts straight,” I said.

“I’m in no mood for your smartass jokes. Telling me you’re on your way to church. The tavern, more likely.”

“Diane, I have a problem with substance abuse. You knew I had that problem when you married me—”

“Don’t you try and make this my fault,” she muttered through clenched teeth. “What’s the matter, I’m not good enough for you anymore?”

I descended three more steps to face her. “What am I supposed to think, coming home and finding you in bed with another woman?”

I had made the mistake of coming within an arm span of her. She hauled off and slapped me open-handed across the cheek. She hit me more lightly than either Cheryl or Janis had, but it hurt more.

“What should I do now, turn the other cheek?”

She backhanded me for that remark, this time with her left. I reached up to touch where the engagement diamond had bit into my cheek and drew back three bloody fingertips.

“What the hell’s gotten into you, Diane?”

“How dare you mock my church and make filthy suggestions about my friend. About me! I’m your wife, not your damned whore!” She picked up the dishtowel she’d dropped on the steps when she’d hit me and threw it at my face.

“Did you ever stop and consider,” I said, following her into the kitchen, “how everything seemed to blow up between us at about the same time you accepted that dinner invitation from Sandra? I don’t know what lies she may have been telling you, but—”

“What lies have you been telling me, Ricky? Every time you told me you loved me, was that a lie?”

“You know better than that.” I moved to embrace her, but she shoved me away.

“I love you,” I called after her as she ran upstairs. If I’d been a real man, I would have followed her. If I’d been a real man, I would have stayed and repeated it over and over to her until she believed it as much as I did. If I’d been a real man I would have stood up to more slaps in the face if that’s what it took to convince her.

I tried not to let the storm door bang on my way out the back.

 

 

 

Chapter Sixteen – The Flip Side of Atlantis

 

“I won’t ask how you got that cut.” Liz dabbed mercurochrome against my cheek with a q-tip, then rummaged in her first-aid kit for a butterfly tape. “You really ought to go to Memorial for a couple of stitches. I can’t guarantee there won’t be a scar.”

“I’m not asking for any guarantees. You’re a grad student in nursing.”

“Nothing as practical as that,” she said. “Biology.”

“That’s practical enough for me.”

I had been passing by Fox & Hare looking for my car, which since yesterday I’d left parked half a block farther down. The open sign was on, so I’d stopped in to pay my condolences. The tinkly new-age music that usually greeted me at the door had today been replaced by a golden oldie. It takes one to know one. I recognized it immediately: Donovan, Season of the Witch. On forty-five, I think it was the flip side of Atlantis. Liz had the volume cranked up loud enough to drive away the demons of her grief.

“Okay, I’ll ask. How’d you get this?”

So I told her all about it. My drinking, my falling down drunk, the fight with Diane. I even opened up about our evening with the Kokkers. I left nothing out. The voices. Her eyes flashed as though in confirmation of all her worst suspicions when she heard about the dagger.

“I knew he had it,” she hissed. “I knew it all along.”

I went on and told her about Sandra living in our house. The last revelation brought a curious expression to her face.

“Being as how you’ve seen this Sandra person naked, did you happen to notice any unusual markings on her? Anything strange or remarkable about her body habitus?”

“What are you trying to do, Liz? Get yourself off?”

“God, you’re sick,” she said. “You don’t know what you’re fooling around with here. If this chick is with Kokker she’s a witch, see? But not the back-to-nature, sixties hippie kind. Oh, she’s man-friendly and easy on the eyes, but don’t let her fool you. Look at poor Gwendace.” Liz closed the lid on the first-aid kit.

“I’m sorry, Liz. If there’s anything I can do—”

“You want to do something for me? Then answer my question.” Her tone was surprisingly sharp.

“Markings. All right, let’s see. She has a mole on her breast, shaped kind of like an upside-down five-pointed star.”

“The Lucifer brand,” Liz gasped. “The morning star falling from Heaven. It’s much worse than I thought. Does she wear any jewelry? Any pendants, for instance?”

“Yeah, she wears this one pendant—all the time, as near as I can tell. Shaped like an infinity symbol with ruby letters that spell—”

“CS,” Liz said.

“Bingo. What’s it mean?”

“Cultus Sororitas. The Sisterhood. She’s a pureblood in the Lilith cult. And she’s taken the final step and sold herself to the Devil. That’s what the star means. Tell me, have you ever seen anything like this before?”

I don’t know why I lied to her. Maybe I wanted to protect Janis from this lunacy. I knew Janis could not be involved in any of it. “No,” I said.

“What else about Sandra?”

“Oh, God, I almost forgot. She wears a wig. Shaves her whole body, even her head, just like Kokker.”

Liz shook her head impatiently, until her short hair bounced. “That’s so nobody can glom onto a hair sample.”

“What are they worried about? DNA?”

“DNA? You poor fool. They’re protecting themselves against anybody using a lock of their hair to place a hex on them.”

“I’m surprised at you, Liz. After all, you’ve studied science.”

She sighed with exasperation. “These people aren’t worried about science, any more than witches in the Middle Ages worried about alchemy,” she said. “They have contempt for science, and why not? Kokker got rich as Croesus by merely possessing the Lilith talisman. Now that it’s gone, he must be mad as hell. Literally. You’re in mortal danger as long as it’s in your hands, Ricky. There are those who’d kill for it. Who else knows you have it?”

“I don’t have it.” I ever so reluctantly told her about Janis. About Madeleine’s disappearance. To my astonishment, Liz knew Janis. “That hot number in the glass cubicle? She gave me the look the last time I came to your office. By the way, send me a bill. Fair is fair, and Diaz must have put in some legwork.”

“Wait a minute. The look? Janis is a Catholic, for God’s sake.”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“I mean, she’s got a black onyx statue of the Madonna right there on her desk and all.”

“That’s no Madonna. I saw the thing you’re talking about. That’s Sarah la Kali. Sarah the Dark One. Saint Sarah to the Gypsies. They call her the Dark Wanderer. An Egyptian woman with a deep knowledge of the occult, now a roaming and restive spirit.”

“How do you know all this, Liz?”

Instead of answering, she moved to the rear of the shop, past rows of apothecary jars filled with God-knows-what. The place had high molded ceiling and lazily turning suspended ceiling fans, beveled mirrors everywhere, and a counter with stools set along a narrow aisle. It might have been an old-time drugstore once, or a saloon. Liz slid out a heavy, built-in walnut drawer. Retrieving something, she walked slowly back to me as though she were following after the coffin in a funeral procession, her hands folded in front of her waist. She opened them only when she stood beside me. She held a pendant identical to those worn by Sandra and Janis.

“Look familiar? It belonged to Gwendace,” she said. “Diaz was kind enough to bring it to me along with her other effects, even though I’m not a blood relative.”

“Gwendace was one of them?” I asked her. “How long had you known?”

“From the beginning.”

I didn’t know what to say. Both women had called me for advice, so often and over so many years, and now I was the one needing the answers. Instead, Liz asked me a question.

“What’s the single most important thing one gay woman can’t give another gay woman, Ricky, without the participation—however anonymous or half-hearted—of a male donor?”

“A baby,” I said.

“Do you remember me telling you of the Lilith cult and my suspicions about how they are able to reproduce?”

“Asexual, you said.”

“Parthenogenesis, to be exact. Almost like a budding plant, without male contact or any of the nasty little entanglements male contact brings. Parthenogenesis always produces a girl baby, a perfect pureblood clone of her mother.”

I began to question whether Liz had literally lost her mind from grief. “You know what science would say, don’t you? Prove it.”

“I wasn’t looking for scientific proof. My interest was purely personal. Gwendace and I were planning a perfect little girl—probably next year. Nobody’d have been the wiser who the father was… or wasn’t. Do you know how many birth certificates nowadays list the father as ‘unknown’? Nobody thinks twice about illegitimacy any more. Try retracing a bloodline over ten thousand generations using the mothers’ maiden names. As impossible as charting the shifting sands back to creation. The Lilith cult members can live and reproduce among us without our ever suspecting their true nature.”

“Which is?”

“Savage and powerful. Wild and free. Their whole species is a living atavism, and I’m one of the few with a science background who even suspects their existence. Do you know what an atavism is, mister lawyer?”

“An evolutionary throwback, isn’t it? The recurrence of an extinct species?”

“Right, except they never really died out. They only wandered the desolate places until the time when human memory ran out, and they could walk among us once more. That time is now.”

“But they’re obviously human. I mean, look at Gwendace.” I immediately regretted saying it, but Liz seemed to have dived down some paranoid delusional rabbit-hole. I felt it was my place to call her back somehow.

“Human? No, dear boy. They may look human and even act human to the casual observer, but let me assure you, they’re not. I suspect their mitochondrial DNA might give the game away, but of course no one has thought to do the research because no one knows of their existence. Very few do, anyway. And almost no one knew Gwendace was one of them.”

“Who knew that besides you?”

She gave me a long look that showed me regrets and sorrows too deep for words. “You know… now.”

“Who else?”

The look continued. I thought I could read her darkest thoughts. The voices. The banality of evil. Kokker. “Kokker knew about Gwendace?”

Liz kept giving me the same look. The look of the lost. It told me everything she wanted me to know. “You think Gwendace was killed because she was one of them?” I asked.

“Gwendace wouldn’t sell out—wouldn’t lie down with those demons—even though it offered her an inconceivably long life and unbelievable powers. I warned you to stay away from those people. Get her out of your house and out of your life, Ricky, while you still can. Your Sandra is only beginning to scratch the surface of evil’s magical, seductive potential. She’s not even a century old.”

“What do you mean, a century old?”

“I mean the Lilith cult escaped the biblical threescore and ten curse, as well as some other Old Testament maledictions that continue to afflict mankind to this day: work, pain in childbirth, subjugation to the male. All these came later, after Lilith’s prideful self-banishment. The devil, the ultimate predator, was waiting there for her in the wilderness to tempt her, just as he waited eons later, in that same wilderness, for Jesus Christ. Jesus resisted, but Lilith fell victim to the Tempter’s spell. Every generation of Lilith’s progeny are tested and tempted the same way, offered all the same enticements: greatly extended life span, enduring youth and beauty—they mature until they look about thirty, then stay that way for centuries—and supernatural powers that far overshadow those that they were born with. It’s the price of those things that Gwendace refused to pay.”

“Which is?”

“The price of those things is to become Satan’s betrothed, to sell yourself to him. That’s when the mark of the falling star appears. Those who wear the pendant also wear the brand of Lucifer. Except that Gwendace told them to go to hell.”

“So you’re trying to tell me Sandra Kokker has actually sold her soul to the devil?”

Liz nodded before adding, “The thing about myths and legends, Ricky, is that they all originate from one essential truth or another, once you care to research their origins deeply enough. The Lilith legend is no different from any of the others.”

“So you’re saying Sandra has a greatly extended life span? How is that possible? I can remember when Sandra was only nineteen.”

“I’m telling you she’s only getting started. She’s only recently sold her soul. If Satan or the others don’t take her life, she might live to an age rivaling Methuselah’s, only she’ll be youthful and beautiful the whole time.”

“I’ll say it again, Liz. Prove it.”

Her expression told me she thought she was wasting her time with me. “There are some things,” she explained, “that lie beyond the realm of scientific proof.” She looked down again at the amulet. A yelp of a sob escaped her. I awkwardly put my arm around her. She didn’t pull away.

“Diaz took me to identify her body,” she wept. “Her beautiful hands.”

“Yes,” I whispered. “I know.”

“I’m not supposed to tell anyone.”

“It’s probably better that way.” The first rule of comforting someone is agreeing with every statement of theirs—whether you understand or not—except self-condemnation. It was not long in coming.

“It’s all my fault,” Liz sobbed. “I wanted to wait, she didn’t. It all seemed a little creepy to me, so I was apprehensive, you know?”

“What was all a little creepy, Liz?”

“The fertilization process. I didn’t tell you about that, did I?”

Just then the shopkeeper’s bell over the front door jingled and Diaz strode in. His expression turned curious as soon as he got used to the dim light and found the two of us embracing. His questioning eyes looked me up and down.

“Your wife said I might find you at the office,” he said.

“So what are you doing here?”

“Following my instincts.”

“How is Diane?”

“Let’s just say I’ve gone out on enough domestic violence calls to know a jealous rage when I see it. You’re probably lucky she’s a Christian woman.” He laughed harshly, then became serious. “Remember what I said, Counselor. About keeping it at home, I mean.”

“She’s not jealous. She’s just mad over my drinking. So what else did she say?”

“I did most of the talking,” he said. “You must have a death wish—what with your wife being psychic and all—the way you’ve been acting lately.”

Liz looked at me quizzically. She tensed, but didn’t pull away from my embrace.

“Her being a psychic,” Diaz went on, “I asked her whether she’d be interested in working with me on this Madeleine disappearance—runaway—whatever. Boy, she’s really got a bug up her ass about using her powers, doesn’t she?”

“Why don’t you use a little more respect when you’re talking about my wife?”

Diaz drew back in mock apprehension. “Touchy, aren’t we? See how it feels, Counselor? Another man talking about your woman’s ass? And hers is a hell of a cute ass, at that. What’s the matter, you can dish it out, but you can’t take it?”

I flashed on the image of his powerful fingers exploring the contours of Diane’s bare bottom and burned with rage. I wanted to fight him right there in the shop—both of us throwing bare-knuckled haymakers like a Saturday morning western—even though he was taller than me by inches and no doubt in much better shape. Liz made the peace.

“Boys, boys,” she shouted. “Listen to me. I’ve got a fortune invested in this place, and I’m underinsured as it is. Nobody wants to appraise magic charms and enchanted amulets at market. So let’s both of you be friends, okay? Shake on it! Ricky?”

I looked away, but reluctantly extended my hand toward him.

“You, too,” she prodded Diaz. We shook once, then each put our hands in our pockets, as though to protect our goodie bags.

Liz shook her head. “And you call yourselves professionals.”

“I was about to say you oughta thank me,” Diaz said amiably. “I tried to take all the heat about last night, telling her how I practically dragged you to the place, about how you protested, et cetera, et cetera. She wasn’t buying it. That’s why I figured it must be a jealous woman-type thing.”

“What was it you wanted to see me about, John?”

He looked uncomfortably at Liz. “Maybe we better step outside.” When she began to protest, he added, “This is police business. Nothing personal.”

Assuring Liz we’d talk more and making her promise to call me whenever she needed anything, whatever the hour, I walked out of the shop with Diaz. We’d barely hit the sidewalk before he said, “I need to take your statement. Officially. It’s for your own good. You’re lucky you were with me last night instead of alone like half the jack-offs in that joint.”

“Why? What happened?”

“Your girlfriend Cheryl turned up dead.”

 

 

Diaz’s car upholstery had been newly shampooed, all traces of Cheryl scrubbed away. A humid washday smell clung to the interior as we sped to the county jail on F Street. Diaz parked in his slot, led me wordlessly to his carrel of an office, and flipped on his computer. He tapped out a few characters on the keyboard before saying, “Maybe four hundred off-duty cops saw the two of you together last night.”

“What happened to her? How did she die?”

“I’m calling this one the ‘titties in the trash dumpster’ case. An old codger scrounging for cans this morning found the body in the alley right behind your office building. This time killer stuffed a holy card in the victim’s mouth. Same bloody fingerprint again. There’s another good clue, too: a used Tex-Ass scumbag lying right between those two big severed jugs. She won’t be shaking them for the boys at the Sphincter Club no more. Whoever did this must have paid her, fucked her, and then hacked off her moneymakers.”

Diaz put together a statement on the word processor, dutifully inserting mid-page mistakes for me to initial, corroborating the fact that I had read through each page. I carefully read, initialed, signed, and dated every damning one. There were five of them. By the time I had finished, I felt like I had just signed my own final divorce papers.

“You won’t let these get out, you know, and into the wrong hands, will you, John?”

“You mean, will wifey-poo ever find out how you locked yourself in my car with a known whore and then watched while she wizzed?” He laughed. “Don’t worry. As soon as we identify the DNA in Big Tex’s gism, we’ll have our killer.”

I could hear my own shallow breathing in the quiet carrel. Diaz seemed to be listening, too, waiting for me to say something.

“I didn’t kill that woman,” I said at last. He seemed surprised I had spoken, or maybe it was feigned surprise. “I was home all night after you dropped me off. Ask my wife.”

“I already have,” he said. “Both her and Kokker’s old lady put you at home until well after the body was discovered. Boy, you got some weird scenes going on, I’ll say that for you. Makes me feel like an altar boy by comparison. How do you get away with all of it?”

“Just lucky, I guess.”

“Maybe too lucky.”

Telling Diaz I needed fresh air, I walked the few blocks to my car, trying to think. Alibi testimony of family or friends is always suspect. I was down on paper wanting Cheryl to turn a trick for me within hours of her ritual murder by a john. It was my fresh semen in the Tex-Ass rubber I had discarded in that dumpster, carefully wrapped inside a sandwich baggie bearing my fingerprints. I’d left the cops a perfect specimen. Guanine, cytosine, tyrosine, and whatever the fuck the fourth one was—all lining up in precise permutations and combinations—hammering out a bar code with my name on it. Right now, my whole life, my freedom, my dim hopes for the future and the genetic blueprint of all I had been and all I would ever be lay imprisoned in some forensic lab’s test tube like a genie in a bottle ready to draw me down to hell.

The jukebox in my head was playing the flip side of Atlantis. Corny as it sounds to modern ears, the wages of sin is death. I drove to the church.

 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen – Slouching Toward Belleville

 

“God it was who forgave David through Nathan the Prophet, when he confessed his sins, and Peter weeping bitterly for his denial, and the sinful woman in tears at his feet, and the publican, and the prodigal son…”

The priest’s right thumb and two fingers pressed together and tapped the sign of the cross over my bowed head.

“May that same God forgive thee all things, Damian,”—I had not heard my communion name in months.—“through me the sinful priest Seraphim—both in this present world and that which is to come—and set thee uncondemned before His dread judgment seat.”

I had stared at the icon of Christ in the flickering candlelight and confessed everything. And I mean everything. The icon seemed to become three-dimensional, a kind of hologram. The Church calls icons windows into eternity. I peered through one of those windows at the visage of my savior and told him what He already knew. When I had finished, Father Seraphim’s hushed voice seemed kind, yet sorrowful.

“When you go home tonight, I want you to pray Psalm Fifty-One from your heart. You know the story of David? How his momentary giving in to lust for Bathsheba led to his taking a human life? The life of her husband, Uriah the Hittite? How David arose from his couch and saw Bathsheba bathing, purifying herself from her uncleanness according to Levitical law? He committed adultery with her and conceived a child that very night—the child who became Solomon. How David connived to slay Uriah in battle, that he might have her?”

I had been nodding along in agreement. Then Father Seraphim inquired, “Do you know how the story ends?”

I stared down at the icon, the cross, and the Gospel. My silence told him I didn’t.

“Then read Second Samuel, Eleven, too,” he said. “God forgave David, but only after David’s sin had brought about two deaths and much misery upon him and his whole house. It must have seemed such an insignificant sin to David at the beginning—well worth the risk, like cheating on one’s diet by eating a sweet. She, a beautiful woman in the full bloom of youth; he, the King of Israel, rising from slumber, well-fed and prosperous. How he must have burned with powerful lust at the very sight of her. God must have seemed for him very far away at that moment of greatest temptation. ‘Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’ Do you know these verses?”

I had to admit I didn’t.

“Proverbs Nine. The words of the wanton woman to him who is without understanding. ‘But he knoweth not that the dead are there; and that her guests are in the depths of hell.’”

I felt like I had already paid hell a visit. I longed for more insight from Father Seraphim. “I need practical advice to escape the mess I’ve gotten myself into, Father. I can’t go live on a mountaintop. What am I supposed to do about these other women? I think it all has its roots back in my childhood. Someone close to me”—I didn’t tell him it was Sandra.—“told me I’m a sex addict.”

“Was David a sex addict? If lust is your cross, pray that it be lifted from you, or for the courage to bear it righteously. As for these women, I wasn’t exactly—how you say—born yesterday, you know? In Soviet Russia there were also such women.”

“What should I do to resist?”

“Pray for them… and for yourself.”

“No offense, Father, but all this sounds kind of like a—”

“A broken record?” Why did everybody I talked to lately seem to be a mind reader? “You accuse me of mouthing platitudes, yet it is you who demands a facile answer, one that provides a quick and easy escape from all the troubles and from all the evil companions your sins have called down upon you. Pray for their repentance, and for yourself that you do not fall into a worse temptation.”

“Shall I pray for someone to repent even after she’s sold her soul to the devil?”

Father Seraphim snorted and gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “Her soul is not hers to sell, and the devil has no intention of keeping his end of any bargain. There is, how you lawyers say, fraud in the consideration and therefore no contract. Is it not so?”

I marveled at his knowledge of the legal concepts.

“But what about—”

“The devil has a hold over her only as long as she allows it,” he said. “Believing otherwise keeps her from repentance. Those who would keep her from the Truth so they can revel in her iniquity are telling her these lies. You must pray that she no longer listens to their lies but rather turns away from her sinful path before it is too late.”

“When is too late?”

“Why, the moment of her death,” he replied, as though he’d suddenly realized he was talking to a dolt.

“There are those who believe she may have the power to live for hundreds of years, Father.”

Father Seraphim stroked his flowing white beard. “Your mother is buried in Salem?”

“How did you know?” More mind reading. I figured I must have told him and forgotten.

“You have never visited her grave.” It was a statement of fact.

“No. I—I was away at college, and she had the bad timing to die during finals week. I never bothered to come back for the funeral.”

“Why? Was she indeed so terrible?”

Indeed she was, but I didn’t feel comfortable admitting it to anyone, even in confession. So I said nothing.

“You should visit her, and soon. It is only fitting. She was your mother, after all. Pay your respects. Bury the past with her. In Salem, you may find the answers you have been seeking.”

“What about this latest murder, Father? How can I ever explain the physical evidence if they try and tie it to me?”

“Is this a legal question you are now asking me?” he inquired archly. “Very well, then. What also are you lawyers fond of saying? Tell the truth but don’t volunteer. You are innocent? Fine. Then pray for our Heavenly Father’s help and guidance. In your hour of need, He will give you the words to say. Until that hour comes, how you say? Keep your trap shut! Go in peace.”

 

 

By four o’clock the weather was as warm as it had been in weeks. Nearly all the snow and ice had melted. The afternoon mist would soon turn to fog. The car radio warned of early evening thunderstorms. I thought of going to the office. I thought of swan-diving off the St. Louis Arch. Instead, I spent our last sixty bucks until payday on a dozen white roses in a green glass vase and drove around some more until Sandra’s car was gone.

Any resolve on Diane’s part to stay angry collapsed when she saw me holding the blossoms out to her. She pressed them to her nose and inhaled. Then she set the vase aside on the kitchen table, turned, and gave me the most sensuous, lingering kiss I could remember. We said “I’m sorry” in unison, tried it again, tripped over each others’ apologies once more, and both laughed.

“You have a right to have a drink now and then, I guess, Ricky.” It took a lot for her to say it. “After all, you work hard to support us.”

“No, I’m through with all that. Never again. And I’m so very sorry if I hurt you in any way, Diane. I’ll make it up to you if it takes me the rest of my life.”

She made a sheepish face. “The kids are at Mom and Dad’s. Want to start making up right now?”

“You mean making out, don’t you?”

“You’re quick,” she said.

“Not that quick, I hope.”

We raced up the stairs and tore off our clothes. I locked the door to the hallway, but there was no lock on the guest room door from the master bedroom side. Lying there in bed with Diane, I realized that I had been an utter fool to stray.

Diane’s hands played with her hair, tousling it into vanilla cotton-candy swirls. Orthodox crosses—hers and mine—clinked together like champagne glasses raised in a wedding toast. Our voices echoed throughout the quiet house as a human descant to the animal intensity of our lovemaking. Diane suddenly went tense. Over my groanings, I heard a familiar voice say, “Don’t stop.” It wasn’t Diane’s.

“Sandy!” Diane’s shocked expression startled even me. She struggled to hide her nakedness under my body.

“Don’t stop,” Sandra repeated calmly, never taking her eyes off us—oblivious as a child to her own nudity. “Sex is beautiful, you know? You guys just need to take the training wheels off and lose the shame. I’m here to help you, anytime you want.”

Diane had found the sheet and pulled it over us. “Sandy, some things are sacred, you know? Give us a few minutes, okay? My gosh.”

“If you pull your legs up a little more, Di, you’ll get deeper penetration,” Sandra offered.

“Thank you for the advice, Sandy,” Diane huffed in her best patronizing manner. I was the only one close enough to see the hint of a goofy smile playing across her face as she turned away. Sandra eased backward into the guest room and closed the door.

“Do you believe her?” Diane whispered into my ear. Kokker’s words about a cat being like a woman came back to me. Now that the Sandra cat had crossed our paths, how would we ever put her out for good? In all the hangover misery and all the turmoil of the past few hours, I hadn’t had time to reflect on the deeper implications of Sandra’s open-ended visit. Was Kokker really angry about her absence? If he was, my job might prove to be in jeopardy.

Or were all of us blindly playing into Kokker’s master plan? And what about Liz’s comments, strange and unbelievable as they seemed? The brand of Lucifer. Were my wife and kids in danger from dear Aunt Sandy?

“I really wish you’d ask her to leave, Diane,” I whispered as we lay together in post-coital languor. “I mean, it’s not like she has nowhere to turn. She’s rich enough to afford any of the best hotels in St. Louis.” Liz’s ancient legends seemed so improbable and weird. I knew Diane would never believe any of them. “We can’t have her walking in on us like this all the time,” I added.

“Bear with me on this one, Ricky. It’s an instinct.” What Diane called her instincts, I held in healthy respect. “It’s more than her marital troubles. I can sense it. Sandy’s searching for something.”

We lay together in silence. For a while, I thought Diane might be asleep. The room was already cloaked in the near-darkness of evening when I heard Sandra’s footsteps descending the stairs. A few moments later, she cold-started her Mercedes and pulled out of the drive, leaving us alone in the house at last. Diane rolled over and sighed, smiling catlike over her pillow at me. Outside, I heard distant thunder accompanied by the gentle tattoo of rain against the roof.

“I went and saw Father Seraphim,” I told her.

“I know.”

“He wants me to visit my mother’s grave.”

“Maybe you should.”

The door chime sounded. Diane sat bolt upright in bed.

“Who the hell is that?” I asked her.

“I forgot to tell you. The computer crashed. I called someone to fix it.”

“Who fixes computers at this hour on a Saturday?”

“Don’t get mad, okay? I called Janis Mezzanotte from your office. She said she’d be happy to stop by after work and see what she could do.”

The chime sounded again. Rain flooded the clogged eaves troughs and cascaded down our bedroom window. “Would you mind getting the door, hon?” Diane said.

I bounded out of bed, threw on some sweatpants and a t-shirt, and ran downstairs barefoot. Janis stood umbrella-less on the side porch. An unexpected flash of lightning cracked the sky and silhouetted her against the evening rain.

“Your hair’s wet,” I remarked.

“Can we discuss my coiffure inside?” She smiled as I stepped aside to let her pass.

“Would you like a towel?”

“Please. A big one.” Adding, “I prefer big ones.”

She removed her coat. I found her a towel. She dried her hair, then turbaned the damp towel around her head like the other night.

“Excuse the informality,” she said. “I can’t stand cold, wet hair. Where’s the patient?”

“Huh?”

“Diane tells me her computer crashed. How about I take a look-see?”

I led her back to the shop. “I don’t know what the problem is,” I said. “Diane only told me about it five minutes ago.”

She looked me up and down. “Hope I didn’t interrupt anything,” she said.

I led her into the workroom. When she booted up Diane’s computer, all that showed on the monitor was a blue screen asking for a password. Lightning flashed again. “Hope we don’t have a power outage tonight,” Janis said. “Could prove embarrassing.”

“Maybe you’d rather come back some other time,” I offered.

“Don’t be silly. Wifey-poo needs her computer up and running. Like her husband.” Moments later Diane walked in.

“Janis, hi. Gosh, you look so beautiful. Like you haven’t aged a day since I saw you last.” She advanced quickly to Janis and took both hands in hers. “I was so sorry when I heard about Madeleine.”

Janis shrugged. “All we can do is hope.”

“We’re praying for you, Ricky and I, aren’t we, honey? For both of you.”

Janis patted Diane’s hand. “Work takes my mind off it,” she said. “That’s why I was almost relieved when I got your message.”

“Ricky’s always saying how you’re the smartest person he knows when it comes to computer-type things,” Diane said. Janis turned to me and acknowledged the compliment with a sardonic expression.

“What seems to be the trouble?”

“Every time I turn it on, all I get is that thing you see there. Do you think it’s salvageable?”

Janis nodded. “Tell you what, let me play with a few things, get into your system a little bit.”

“Would you care for some coffee?” Diane asked. “I’ll make us some espresso if you’d like.”

“Espresso sounds perfect, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“No trouble at all. Thank you for all your trouble.” Diane hurried out toward the kitchen.

“She does have an afterglow about her, doesn’t she?” Janis said.

“Believe me, Janis, I didn’t set this up—”

Seated in front of the computer, she regarded me over her shoulder and said, “I wouldn’t mind if you had, Ricky. We’re professional colleagues, after all.” She tried a password. “That’s why they pay me the big—” A thunderclap explosion, a blinding flash, and everything went dark.

I heard Diane’s startled scream come from the kitchen. Janis’s lips found mine in the darkness. The cool peppermint of her breath mingled with the fabric softener fragrance of the damp towel around her head. Her long fingers searched until they found lewd purchase, as the poets say.

“Hon, where’s the First Alert?” Diane called out. Suddenly David and Bathsheba were mere stories in a children’s picture book.

 

 

 

Chapter Eighteen – Ricky Sucks The Big One

 

Once the power came on again, Janis pressed a switch. Diane’s computer hummed and whirred, the sound of a hundred tiny tappets hammering. Soon the familiar sign-on screen appeared. Janis said, “Mad must have set up a separate user identity and password, then made herself the administrator. She hijacked your computer, in other words.”

“Think… think.” Janis made a clucking sound through clenched teeth. For passwords she tried “Goth-this” and “Goth-that” without success. She tried Mad’s name, then initials. Nothing. “Stupid,” she muttered. “What night was she here? Of course!” She typed in Saint Agnes.

“Bingo!” she said. “Mad always saves her chats. Let’s see what secrets she was trying so hard to hide behind that password. Maybe we can identify her little pen pal.”

“What moniker does he use?”

“His screen name is candleman666.”

I started to say something but caught myself. Artie was my connection. And if I could find Mad myself, there would be no end to Janis’s gratitude.

Janis set about copying Madeleine’s chat transcripts onto a disc to take home with her, vowing to give them to Diaz. Diane came in with a silver tray and three demitasses redolent of espresso. We all sat cross-legged on the floor to drink from them.

“I can’t believe how you fixed it so quickly—Omigod!” Diane had spilled espresso all over her white silk blouse. She searched for a rag to dab it up. “I have to act fast. Will you excuse me?” Diane hurried toward the laundry room at the other end of the house, holding her blouse away from her chest with thumbs and forefingers like a little girl trying to have breasts.

I stared at the dregs in my cup as though trying to read my fortune there. In the periphery of my vision, Janis sat in a yoga lotus. Her left great toe, the nail painted blood red, was a plum within easy reach. I don’t know what came over me—something like easy affection mixed with sympathy—but I reached and gave it a playful squeeze. She unfolded her legs, reclined backward slightly, and pointed her left foot—extending the toe within an inch of my mouth like a lady offering her hand to a gentleman to be kissed. I shot a wary glance toward the door. Diane was nowhere in sight and safely out of earshot.

I took Janis’s toe in my mouth and sucked it, cradling her instep in my hand. It seemed a natural gesture of obeisance, like washing the feet of a guest, yet more intimate. Her taste was sweet as rainwater.

A breathy moan escaped her lips. “You’ve rediscovered my Achilles’ heel. Let me find yours.” Her right foot found my root. With her delightfully prehensile toes, she massaged me, her face an expression of lupine glee. Nearby thunder rattled the windows of the house and the lights flickered. Diane was still nowhere in sight. Moments later, another blackout cast us into total darkness. Even the streetlights were out. All I could hear over the drumming and driving rain was the rhythm of my own heavy breathing.

“Janis?” I called out.

Her voice was startlingly close and tantalizing. “Why so tense, Ricky? Scared of the dark?”

“Maybe a little.”

“What you’re really afraid of is what you want in the dark when nobody’s looking. What we both want.” I heard the rustle of her clothing. “You always get what you want, don’t you, Ricky? You got it from Sandra Kokker the other night.”

“What are you talking about?” I said, trying for a nonchalant whisper.

“Why else would she have given you the dagger? I know Hairless Krishna didn’t hand it over.”

“Is that what this is all about? That damn knife? I committed I don’t know how may felonies for you already when I wiped it clean of fingerprints. Why do you still want it? ”

“To wash the blood off it, that’s why. Then it can never be identified as the murder weapon. Give it back to me, Ricky, and I’ll give you everything you want. Sensual practices you never knew existed. Fleshly wisdom lost to mankind—forgotten since those torrid ancient nights when the courtesans of Egypt plied their wily arts.” She sighed. “Too bad that library of theirs burned down.”

“What library?”

“Alexandria. Who knows what love scrolls went up in smoke? The human body should come with an instruction manual. Instead, you have to fumble around—find out what gives you pleasure by accident. What if they sent out computers that way? No manual. No instructions. People would be using them for a night light.”

“Anyway,” I said, “I don’t have it.”

She exhaled with impatience. “Of course you do, Ricky. You must have taken it before you made it out my door that night.”

“Janis, I swear I didn’t take the dagger. Madeleine must have.”

“Madeleine was upstairs the whole time. Madeleine knows nothing about it. No, Ricky. You took it. You were angry, trying to get back at me.”

“Janis—”

“Anyway, I forgive you for acting like a child. Now give me the dagger.” She pushed her hand inside my sweat pants. Diane must have heard me cry aloud.

“Ricky? Honey, are you all right?” Candlelight flickered through the hall of icons like an approaching religious procession. At the last moment Janis drew away.

“Fine, hon. Janis just reminded me I have a brief to get off by Monday.”

“You and your briefs,” Diane said. “Can’t you delegate it to somebody else just this once? Why should you do everything at that office?” She set the candle on an end table. Then, turning to Janis, she added, “No offense, Janis. I know you do more than your share there, too.”

“I’m always available to help Ricky get his briefs off,” Janis said, “but now I really must go. I’m sure you two must have other things to do besides entertain me. Diane, Ricky, it’s been real.”

 

 

The rain had ended, swept away by a cold howling wind that dried up the streets like a sponge. I was lustful as a stallion before I even turned away from the door to face Diane. I seized her in my arms and drew her to me, clutching her to my chest with a force that knocked the breath out of her. “Kids at the grandparents’ house” is one of nature’s most underrated aphrodisiacs. My legs felt weak with desire, but we both sprang up the stairs to resume our interrupted tango in the bedroom.

After a ridiculous attempt to block the lockless guestroom door by propping the Bentwood rocker against it, I abandoned the effort and sought refuge in my sweet Diane. This time there were no interruptions. I don’t know whether I would have noticed any. The wind moaned with a lover’s passion. Timed perfectly to our mutual climax, the lights came on in the hallway. For a moment, I thought Sandra had returned, but it was only the power restored. We lay spent in each other’s arms, listening to the sounds of the empty house.

“Janis is pretty,” Diane said, breaking our silence.

“Did I tell you she’s dating John Diaz?” I asked her after a moment’s hesitation.

“No,” she replied. “You didn’t.”

“He’s working on Madeleine’s disappearance.”

“I don’t like him,” Diane grimaced, shaking her head.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. Something about him just turns me off, ever since he came looking for you today. He’s a bad influence. I think that must be it.”

“I’m not the one dating him.”

“Promise me one thing, Ricky.” She lifted her head from my chest to face me. I felt the bikini-line bristles and the damp stickiness of her against my thigh. “Promise me you won’t go drinking with him again. Not ever. I’m afraid of something awful happening. Will you promise?”

And so I promised my lady there in the dark, staring into her perfect face, stroking her hair until she fell asleep—her eyes two catlike dream slits I knew so well.

I lay awake, too unnaturally excited to sleep. Finally, careful not to wake Diane, I tiptoed downstairs, feeling my way through the darkened salon and into the workroom. Booting up Diane’s computer, all the while imagining Janis’s fingers dancing the flamenco over the keyboard, I read the chat logs Janis had failed to erase from Mad’s documents file. Under the screen name st_agnes, she had chatted with Artie about something called “blood clubs.” I Googled the expression and found three within driving distance. The closest, near Belleville, called itself The Wet Spot. The Wet Spot’s web address linked in turn to a porn site called “Mardi Gore.” Members had posted before and after thumbnails. One series featured a dark-haired beauty who couldn’t have been more than nineteen using a scalpel to fashion a necklace of tiny cuts, festooning herself with a May Day garland of bleeding wounds. The expression on her face was that of a little girl showing her boo-boo. Another gallery displayed a well-endowed woman sporting clusters of blood-filled hypodermics hanging from both breasts like Cupid’s arrows.

It was like a bad car accident; I couldn’t look away. The sensual, come-join-me expressions of the women, gashed and seeping from every erogenous zone, told me the blood was real, all real. In a streaming video display, wannabe vampires got into the act, slavering over their willing victims—lapping up the blood, then proudly displaying their red milk mustaches and goatees—giving the phrase “exchange of bodily fluids” a whole new meaning. Was this what Artie was into? And now Madeleine?

Repulsed, I returned to the chat logs. It was like eavesdropping on an obscene phone call, only with caller and victim both into the same weird scenes. Madeleine—st_agnes—claimed to have cut herself regularly, once to the point of needing a tourniquet. She’d acquired a thirst for her own blood, she bragged, and knew how to lie to the emergency room.

The barely audible sound of a weeping woman broke my concentration. At first I thought it was the wind. I’d seen too many ghosts lately—Sandra had shown me two who wouldn’t stay buried. And Belleville boasted more than one old haunted house. But this was no ghost. The deep, shuddering sobs emanated from somewhere close by. The entire room seemed cold, as if the macabre images had drained all the blood warmth out of me. I turned.

Sandra, tiny rivulets of mascara streaming down her cheeks, stood mesmerized behind me, staring at the screen.

“How long have you been standing there, Sandra?”

She pulled the robe she wore tighter around her neck. “Let’s go in the kitchen. It’s too cold in here for polite conversation. Or impolite conversation, either. Come on. I’ll make us some herbal tea.”

“How about coffee instead?”

“I need to avoid caffeine for a while. And you look too tweaked out for coffee. You oughta go easy on that stuff, man.”

“What? Coffee?”

“You know the stuff I mean.”

Sandra heated two mugs of water to a near-boil in the microwave. “Kirk doesn’t know I can cook. Let’s make it our little secret, okay?”

“What other little secrets are we keeping from him?”

“As in?”

“Sandra, what’s the real reason you gave me the dagger that night?”

She gazed into the dim light of the microwave as though debating whether to tell me. Finally she said, “Because I love my husband, Ricky. Warts and all. Diane and that old priest, Father Seraphim, are helping me realize that I still love him.”

“When did you see Father Seraphim?”

“You know Di. When she and I were supposed to go shopping the other day? She dragged me kicking and screaming to her church instead. I guess she could sense the pain in me and thought it might do me some good. Well, it did. Father talked with me for hours while poor Di sat alone in the sanctuary. Father made me see how it was my anger at Kirk that made me steal the dagger and the videotapes from Kirk in the first place. Father Seraphim says my anger at Kirk can mean only one thing: I’m still in love with the bald-headed little prick.”

“Sandra, if I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a thousand times in my practice. Abused woman forgives wife-beating husband, goes back to him, gets another, worse beating next time around. It’s the original vicious cycle. Cops know it, prosecutors know it—”

“Hear me out, Ricky. The other thing I came to realize is that, because I gave the tapes and dagger to you, it means I’m in love with you. I love you even more than I love Kirk. My love for Kirk is dying, while my love for you is still in the womb.”

“Diane doesn’t know about us, does she?” I waited for her to answer, but she didn’t. “What does all this have to do with the dagger?”

“I guess part of me thought if I could only get that damned knife away from Kirk, he’d come to his senses and everything would go back to the way it used to be in the beginning—before all the hoodoo.” Sandra brought the two mugs with steeping teabags to the table. “It’s not just a funky antique, see? He really believes the knife has a special power that makes him rich.

“I know.”

“You know? Who told you?”

“The dagger does have occult power, Sandra. We both know we’re talking about the Lilith talisman here, so let’s quit playing games.”

“But see, the talisman is like any other religious dealie: it works on faith. Once Kirk finds out he’ll still be rich even without the talisman as a crutch, maybe he’ll be able to let go of the other stuff.”

“The other stuff?” I casually dipped my teabag and prodded it with some kind of plastic swizzle stick Sandra had placed in the mug. “You mean the Sisterhood? The brand of Lucifer?”

Her eyes widened. The trails of smeared mascara gave her the surreal visage of a lost soul. “What do you know about the brand of Lucifer?” she hissed.

“Everything,” I lied. “I know about the amulet, about the mole. Everything.”

“They’d kill me if they knew I’d even talked to you about it,” she whispered, so softly I barely knew she had spoken.

“You might as well tell me,” I said. “I already know everything, anyway. Plus, as your attorney I have to keep it just between us. It falls under secrets, confidences, and privilege.”

She raised her mug to her lips and held it there like a veil. “If I tell you,” she began, “it’s only because I’ve fallen in love with you, Ricky, and want to be with you—both you and Di. Here in this house. Lovers with no secrets among us. Agreed?”

I swallowed. “Agreed.”

“So what do you want to know?”

“How do you become one of them?”

“Free choice. They let you try on one of their amulets. Wear it around for a while to get the feel of it. Feels great, at first. Then comes the initiation.”

“Initiation?”

“A little nighttime ceremony with a corpse as guest of honor. Man, I was so wasted that night. I remember them dripping hot candle wax all over my boobs. Hurt like hell. And having to drink some nasty shit from one of those big silver cups—you know the ones I mean?”

“You mean like a chalice?”

“That’s what it was, a chalice. Only this one had a gleaming skull on it for decoration. They held me down and forced me to drink from it. Believe me, Ricky, I’ve sucked enough cock to recognize the flavoring in the drink they were pouring down me. Then, for the big finale, the Demon Mother herself appeared, wet her fingertip—where, I won’t tell you—and touched it to my breast.”

Sandra shuddered.

“You know, I’ve decided to do something.”

“What’s that?”

“You’re gonna think I’m crazy.”

“Try me.”

“I told you I’ve fallen in love with you, Ricky—it’s not just the sex anymore. Don’t get me wrong; the sex is still great, and it’s bound to get even greater once Di joins in. But if I’m gonna be lovers with you two, I wanna be like you in every way.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning I’ve had it with this eternal youth thing. That’s part of being a member in this little Lucifer club. But what good is eternal youth without love, you know? I want to be human, like you and Di. I guess you know all about the daughters of Lilith. As powerful and scary as they are, I’m tired of being one of them. This Lilith thing cannot go on another generation. That’s why I was crying just now. That’s why I’m ready to tell them all to get fucked.”

“Sandra, I don’t know what to say.” I took Sandra’s hand in mine across the table.

After a long interval, she said, “It’s not too late for me, Ricky. It’s not too late for either one of us.”

“You’re getting religious on me?”

“Fuck, no,” she said. She stood, grasped the gold chain holding her medallion, gave a yank, and threw it aside. With a clatter, the whole works ricocheted against a lower cabinet before plopping into Vlad’s water dish.

Sandra instantly looked tired. Her body sagged. Within moments, she grew puffy around the eyes and drawn in the mouth. The change was barely perceptible, akin to the redefining play of light and shadow across the face when one tilts a lampshade. She looked as haggard as I probably did. In the last few days I had barely slept, a legacy of the Crankenstein. Although I was beginning to mistrust my senses, Sandra looked every one of her thirty-eight years tonight.

“I feel like I’ve aged ten years in one night,” she sighed. “In a way I suppose I have. It was ten years ago this coming Samhain I took the plunge. Oh, well. The things we do for love, right, Ricky? Mind if I smoke?”

She produced a pack and lit up a cigarette, carelessly leaving the match burning in her fingers.

“Those things will kill you,” I warned her.

Behind us, I heard an angry hissing sound. I spun around in time to see the last of Vlad’s water erupt into an angry boil, then vanish in a cloud of vapor—as though a tiny white-hot meteorite had found its target there.

Sandra screamed. I turned back just as her robe caught fire. A ruby coal, the size and shape of a cigarette burn, smoldered over her right breast, then burst into azure flame. I bolted to the kitchen sink, splashed water into a tumbler, whirled and emptied it on her, but not before she had thrown open the robe to the waist. Below her right nipple, at about eight o’clock, a point of light sputtered and sparked like the fuse of a bottle rocket. Choking sulfurous fumes filled the room, setting off the earsplitting squeal of the kitchen smoke detector. Or was it all in my imagination? I had read in college psychology texts how someone sleep-deprived for extended periods could hallucinate, look in a mirror and think his hair was on fire. My own hair had been burning out of control for days. Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the tiny spitting flame shooting from Sandra’s breast self-extinguished with a noise no louder than a popcorn fart, leaving a round black wound like a cigarette burn. I moved away to stupidly wave a towel at the smoke detector until it shut off.

“I’ll call nine-one-one,” I volunteered.

“No need,” Sandra was behind me, speaking with what I thought was remarkable calm under the circumstances. “Look!”

I risked a glance at her wound and, in the time it takes to burst a bubble, saw the last of the charred and blackened hole close and smooth over like cake batter. Soon her skin surface was pure and cool as milk.

“Hey,” she said, newly enthused. “You hear that?”

I listened. No sound of Diane. She must have been dead asleep. Even the wind had died down.

“I don’t hear a thing,” I said.

“Exactamundo,” Sandra nodded brightly. “The voices. They’re gone. Gone for good.” She laughed wildly, holding up both middle fingers in midair like apostrophes.

“You see that?” she yelled. “It takes more than a few fireworks to scare this chick! Here’s what you can do with your fucking medallion and your fucking brand of Lucifer!” She let loose with another whooping laugh.

“Sandra,” I cautioned, “Diane’s asleep.”

“Let’s you and me stay up all night and talk, like a slumber party for two. I feel like nobody can possibly hurt me ever again. I’m empowered, for once. What else you wanna know? We’ll play twenty questions.”

“Okay, here’s one. What happened to Lilith, the way you get the story?”

“What happens to a saint when nobody believes in her anymore?”

“Somebody names a grade school after her, I guess.”

“She goes off into the wilderness,” she said, answering her own question.

“What wilderness is that?”

“How should I know? One wilderness is the same as another. And the thing about a wilderness is that it either kills you or makes you stronger.”

“And your point?”

She sprang up from the table like a child. “Here, let me show you a magic trick. Got a pocket mirror?”

I shook my head.

“I’ll get one from my purse, then. Let’s reconnoiter outside the downstairs bathroom.”

I followed in after her. She posed full-face before the bathroom mirror and held the rectangular mirror vertically, perpendicular to the bridge of her nose. “Come over here and see,” she said.

When I stood at the proper angle the small mirror obscured the right half of Sandra’s face, yet the reflection made up that other half in perfect symmetry. “So?” I asked.

She stepped aside and said, “Now you try it.”

I took Sandra’s place and lined the mirror up to my nose just as she had done, dividing my face in half. But try as I might, I could not get the two halves to line up and match, even when I flipped the mirror over and tried it on the left side. Every attempt resulted in a gross distortion of my features no better than a clumsy police sketch or an inept sculptor’s failed effort.

“What gives?” I said, laying the mirror down on the sink in frustration.

“No one born of woman has a perfectly symmetrical face.”

“That pretty much leaves everybody out, then, doesn’t it, Sandra?”

“I said no one born of woman. Woman was taken from man’s rib, dissected out of him as a poor substitute after his original mate had already split from the Garden.”

My breath caught. “Lilith.”

“Yup. Lilith started her own bloodline that continues to this day. You can tell us by our faces. The purebloods wear the face God originally intended before Eve even entered the picture—the perfectly symmetrical paradise face. Eve is swinging from the branches of your family tree. That’s why your face looks cockeyed when you do the mirror test. It was Lilith who was man’s perfect mate, his equal—at least until she became the Demon Mother.”

“I could tell you a few things about Demon Mothers myself.”

She studied me thoughtfully. “I’ll bet you could at that, Dick. Been to Salem to visit your mom’s grave yet?”

“Everybody wants to send me on a pilgrimage to the cemetery lately,” I said. “You have been talking to Father Seraphim.”

“Make fun of it if you want, but let me ask you one thing. Who gets more out of a pilgrimage, the dead saint who gets venerated or the live pilgrim doing the venerating?”

“What do you know that you’re not telling me, Sandra?”

She turned off the fluorescent light over the bathroom mirror, as though she believed the darkness might hide her from some unseen danger. “They would kill me if I ever told you that,” she whispered.

I reached to stroke her face, exploring its perfect symmetry like a blind man. “Tell me as your lawyer then. Who else is perched up my family tree?”

She drew nearer to me. The strands of her synthetic hair brushed my cheek and collar as she murmured in my ear. “Shake it and you’ll find out. I’ll give you only one hint: its roots are buried in Salem. The rest you’ll have to learn for yourself.”

I leaned to kiss her, but she pulled away in firm, unmistakable denial.

“Let’s go finish our tea,” she whispered.

We sat across from each other at the kitchen table. I stirred my cooling tea. “You’re the first person I ever met who puts swizzle sticks in tea mugs,” I said, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “And why only in mine?”

“Take a look at it,” she said. “It’s kind of a conversation piece.”

I withdrew the stick from the amber liquid to study it. The tip had a tiny round indicator recessed well into it; its color was blue. The realization of what my “swizzle stick” really was convulsed me with shock.

“See? Blue. It’s a boy!” Sandra said with a thousand-watt grin. “You’re going to be a daddy again! Congratulations, Pop!”

“You were telling me the truth? You really did quit taking your pill? Why?”

“Call me crazy. I’m a woman in love with a man. And you’re the man.”

The phrase you’re the man reverberated inside my brain. It was the expression Mark Kane always used when he had some particularly disagreeable task to delegate to me. It was what he had said before dispatching me to Kokker’s mansion for that inauspicious house call.

“Of course I’m still in the real early stages, but the thing about us Sisterhood girls, we have a real short what you call gesticulation period.”

“You mean ‘gestation.’”

“That thing with hamsters. Or I guess minks would be a better example.”

Fortunately Diane had cleared all the dishes from the kitchen sink. I hawked up the tea with heaves so violent I feared my entrails might follow.

“Hey, you,” Sandra called out happily. “I already told you once: I’m the one should be having the morning sickness around here.” My answer was an unintelligible mumble. I raised my head. The night sky had transformed the warped glass of the old kitchen window into a funhouse mirror. If Sandra’s was the paradise face, mine was one of the damned.

 

 

 

Chapter Nineteen – Pantsing in the Moonlight

 

It was almost noon Monday when I looked up to focus on my potential oblivion. Diaz was standing at the door to my office staring at me.

Sandra and I had stayed up all night talking, quitting only when Diane came down to fix breakfast. The women had gone somewhere together on Sunday without me, so I spent my day playing handyman and watching the kids, doing anything that did not require deep thought. I should have been exhausted but sat up most of the night as usual, but this time keeping an anxiety- and guilt-imposed vigil over Sandra’s revelation.

By Monday morning all I could think about were the remnants of Artie’s trial offer lying in my desk drawer. I hurried in to the office before anyone else arrived and disposed of the evidence by snorting it up my nostrils. Now, not even hungry for lunch, I was speed-reading through a potential medical malpractice file when Diaz came in.

“You look like a fucking crankhead,” Diaz said. I was glad he couldn’t run a blood tox screen on the spot. Lucky for me, it had never occurred to Mark Kane to call for a urine drop from his employees to check for controlled substances. Instead, Diaz walked around at what I thought was an ominously slow pace, studying me with his cop’s eyes. “Wanna take a break?” he said at last. “Got something you might be interested in.”

We ran a couple of associates out of the library.

“Lock the door,” Diaz told me. I complied while he pulled the blinds and fooled with the DVD player. “How do you work this thing?”

I set it up and inserted the disc for him. We stood and watched what appeared to be black and white footage from a bird’s-eye view security camera inside a supermarket. I thought Diane and I bought groceries from the same store.

“Turn up the sound,” he said. I punched the button a few times until I heard the FM easy listening music and the occasional interruption of flat, bored voices over the PA system. The camera focused on the canned-goods aisle. A woman wearing a cloth coat swatted a small child and dragged him away from a cardboard display by his collar. Pensioners clotted the aisle in both directions, triple-parking their carts while they stopped to inspect the soup cans for dents. I had no more patience watching them than if I had been trying to hurry down that aisle myself.

“Thanks for sharing this Andy Warhol moment, John, but I have lawyer work to do.”

“Keep your pasties on,” he grunted. “Fast-forward. Okay… now. Right here.”

With the push of a button, the customers slowed from frenetic, insect-like activity to normal human action. The soup aisle had cleared except for one old woman who hobbled slowly into view from the top of the screen using her shopping cart as a walker. When she reached the foreground she stopped, shifted her big black purse for ballast, and, with a rolling walk that brought to mind a slow-motion Henry Armetta impression, maneuvered hand-over-hand around the cart to the nearest shelf.

“Here’s where it gets good,” Diaz chortled. A gangly, straggly-haired gargoyle of a man wearing a black t-shirt and black drawstring pants—like a latter-day ninja—appeared behind the old woman. The harsh fluorescent lights of the store reflected off his balding pate. At his side a tall, thin young woman also clad head to toe in black carried nothing but an empty shopping basket.

There was no mistaking Mad and Artie doing their marketing. Artie smirked and whispered something in her ear.

“Keep watching.” Diaz’s tone held a secret glee. Madeleine barely suppressed a giggle as Artie assumed a mockingly exaggerated track starting position, touching his knuckles to the floor and twitching his ass at her.

“It’s Artie Tremayne,” I remarked.

“It was Artie Tremayne,” Diaz said quietly.

Artie sprang into motion from his sprinter’s stance. Madeline yelped and screamed with laughter. Knees pumping, Artie passed the old woman like a jumped-up grim reaper doing the hundred-yard dash. He reached out and grabbed the elastic waistband of her stretch pants and yanked down with both drywaller’s thumbs, shouting, “Twat inspector.”

Without slowing, Artie vaulted over the pharmacy counter and raked boxes off the shelves with both hands, stuffing some down his pants and passing the rest back over the counter to Mad, who loaded them into her shopping basket.

“Sixty-seven boxes, all told. Looked like a fucking manufacturer’s recall. Guess he wanted to get a jump on the cold and flu season. Now watch this.”

The painful glare of the lights made the varicose veins in the old woman’s legs look like nightcrawlers on the sidewalk after a heavy rain. Without even pausing to pull up her pants, the old battleaxe fumbled around in her purse and came up with a hog-leg forty-five revolver that might have seen action in the Spanish-American War. Balancing her elbows on the handle of her shopping cart, she leveled her aim at Artie.

“Get a haircut,” she screamed. Then she let go a shot that sounded like an underwater explosion, transforming Mad’s spacey laughter into a wail of terror.

My pulse and blood pressure must have been redlining.

“Did she kill him?” I gasped. “Did she kill both of them?”

Diaz shut off the player. The white noise of the TV filled the room.“No,” he said at last, “she didn’t kill them.”

“What, then?”

He slouched down in one of the library chairs and spun the DVD on the end of his right index finger. “First you have to promise me one thing. You have to promise not to tell Janis.”

It was then I knew Madeleine was dead. I gave him my promise.

“What’s on this disc happened day before yesterday. Store security brought it to me because whenever a shoplifter cleans out all the Sudafed, it spells only one thing: crank lab. Those generally operate in county’s jurisdiction, out in the country—away from nosy neighbors. Literally nosy. The chemical process stinks to high heaven. When I saw Artie Tremayne’s weasely face and Madeleine with him, without any apparent coercion, I knew what to look for. I coordinated with the drug squad about any ongoing meth lab investigations. One of the sites that came up as highly suspicious was a run-down little trailer park north of Marissa called Mar-a-Lago.”

“Mar-a-Lago?”

“You know it?”

“No.”

“Consider yourself lucky. Place should have been named Shangri-Shit. Last stop before homeless.”

“Artie and Madeleine were staying there?”

He nodded. “It was centrally located and ideal for Artie’s purposes. Close to the Metro East, but still only about an hour or so away from Carbondale. Truckers didn’t name that town Beaver City for nothing. Home of Southern Illinois University and acres of coeds. Party school. Artie was like a kid who never grew up. It figured to be high on a short list of places he’d light on after he jumped bail.”

“So Artie set up a crystal meth lab there?”

“God damn, get with the program, Counselor. Nobody calls it that anymore. The Hoosiers and bikers call it ice or crank. It’s their drug of choice, but it also appeals to the college kids pulling all-nighters before finals. Yeah, Artie set up a lab, right there in the trailer where he and Madeleine were living.

“At Mar-a-Lago the trailers all have that plastic weatherproofing instead of windows, and no insulation. The place is a pesthole of crank abusers and various other burnouts. Perfect for a guy like Artie: a double Y hiding out in a doublewide.

“So one day Artie pulls up in his converted hearse—the one with the illegal u-v running lights under it that he uses to impress the little underage Goth princesses—and he sets up his makeshift crank lab. He’s good—real good—and before long, he’s cranking it out, you know? I understand from his PSI Artie was no dumb guy—he had two college degrees—but he must have had no common sense.”

“What do you mean?”

“The chemical process to make methamphetamine produces potentially explosive fumes. That’s another reason it’s better to cook it out in the boonies to avoid the risk of a spark, or arouse suspicion because a guy has to go forty yards outside the house—day or night—whenever he wants to smoke a cigarette. State Fire Marshall thinks our boy genius probably lit a match. The blast nearly flattened the whole trailer park, not that that would be any great loss. I’m sorry to break it to you, but he and Madeleine both died in the explosion. Happened about five o’clock this morning. I just got back after positively IDing the bodies for the coroner.”

“Why you?”

“Why not? I was familiar with both individuals, and I was probably within a day or so of finding them anyway when the place went up. Seemed like a natural choice. And now it falls to me to tell Janis. Let me do that in my own way, in my own good time.”

“Was it…difficult for you? I mean, you know, confirming the identities?”

“They were both barbecued pretty well-done, if that’s what you’re driving at. Not even pink on the inside. But it was obviously them. You can take a look yourself if you want. Lester’s got the two of them laid out side-by-side down at the morgue by this time, pretty as a picture.”

“No,” I said too quickly. I never had the stomach for viewing the dead under ideal circumstances, let alone when they were on a slab, burned almost beyond recognition. But I couldn’t help thinking about one thing: the missing dagger.

“Find any weapons on either of them?”

“You mean like a firearm?”

“Or even a knife, let’s say.”

“What’s it to you?”

I tried to change the subject. “What about a dead snake?”

“Dead snake? You sure you haven’t been snorting some of Artie’s home-brewed crank, Counselor? You’re hallucinating.”

“Madeleine had a pet snake, Samael, remember? She never went anywhere without him. Even took him with her when she ran away. He had to have been in the trailer with her when it went up.”

“No,” he said, “no snake remains. But nobody was looking for any, either.”

“What about in the hearse?”

“Artie must have left the keys in the ignition. One of the trailer-park burnouts evidently tooled off in it. Shouldn’t be hard to spot a customized hearse with a lit-up undercarriage, though. We’ll catch up with it before long.”

I circled around to the subject again, trying for casual. “What’s the drill if, say, you had found any weapons at the scene of the explosion?”

“They’d be inventoried,” he said after a long pause. “But there weren’t any. Why all this sudden interest in serpents and daggers?”

“Daggers? I don’t recall mentioning anything about a dagger.”

He held up both hands and chuckled derisively. “Okay, Counselor, you got me. Yeah, we were searching for a dagger. That’s because your girlfriend Cheryl took one in the aorta… about a five-inch curved blade according to the wound impression that was taken. It was Madeleine’s bloody fingerprint on that holy card found in the victim’s mouth and also on the holy card we found on Gwendace Fox. Our little Madeleine definitely had some mental problems. I guess there’s no harm in telling you now that she was also a double murderer. Artie saved the county taxpayers the expense of two trials and umpteen psychiatrists by blowing them both to hell.”

“What about the AFIS match linking her to a murder before she was born?”

He shook his head with disdain. “Computers,” he muttered. “I rechecked the results this morning. There was no match to that other crime. Not even close. Must have been some kind of glitch. Or maybe I’m working too many hours, after all.” The last statement, coming from him, was a stunning admission. “Madeleine must have heard talk of the Carla Tremayne murder and copied the holy card and such.”

Maybe it was the effects of the Crankenstein, but I wanted to get back to work. “So I guess you’ll close what, four case files with this explosion? Gwendace Fox, Cheryl the stripper, Artie’s multiple felonies, and Madeleine’s disappearance.”

He nodded in weary assent. “Hell of a way to do it,” he said. “Only one thing always bothers me about these head cases, and that’s how nobody ever saw it coming. In time to stop it, I mean. Janis is an intelligent woman, after all. You’d think she would have seen the signs in her own daughter—got her some professional help before it was too late. I guess, as a parent, there’s bound to be a lot of denial going on there.”

“Maybe you can be too close to a person to appreciate that they’ve got a serious mental disorder.”

“I know,” he said, “but let’s face it, Mad was pretty far gone. That thing with the hands? I mean, yeesh.”

That brought me up short. “What thing with the hands?”

“Oh, that’s right. You didn’t know about that. That’s the other detail aside from the fingerprints that we kept secret from the public about those crimes. Guess it won’t make any difference if I tell you now.”

“Tell me what?”

“Madeleine cut off the hands of both victims at the wrists. Surgical precision, too, even though she’d never dissected anything bigger than a frog in school. Must have paid attention in biology class. Looking at her work, you’d have thought she was a doctor.”

“Or a biologist,” I said.

 

 

I had a lunch break coming. Rather than eating—the idea revolted me—I used it to pay a call on Liz Hare at her shop on East Main. I broke the news to her about Madeleine and held her as she cried against my shoulder over the tragedy and the butchery that had ended Gwendace’s life. She seemed almost relieved, as though the fact that the perpetrator had been a child somehow made it more understandable, more acceptable. A piteous, disturbed child had killed and mutilated Gwendace. And now that child herself was dead. The news media would have called it closure.

“It terrifies me,” I told her, “when I think of her in our home so many evenings, left all alone with our children.”

She looked at me curiously. “How’s your latest house guest making out?”

I described the Saturday night fireworks after Sandra had taken off the medallion. Liz seemed doubtful.

“What became of the medallion after she threw it in the cat’s water?” she asked.

I didn’t know. It had been gone the next morning. I’d looked for it after the women left for church. “Maybe Sandra deep-sixed it while my back was turned.”

“Get rid of it, Ricky,” she cautioned, staring down at her wrists. “In the wrong hands, it’s very dangerous.”

“More so than the dagger?”

Wide-eyed, she met my gaze. “What about the dagger?”

“Madeleine must have taken it with her when she ran away, but Diaz didn’t find it when he sifted through the debris of the explosion. And he was looking for it as a probable murder weapon.”

“It must be found,” Liz intoned with fear, “before the powers of darkness use it again to purify the Blood.”

“What’s all this about ‘purifying the Blood,’ Liz? I held the thing in my hands. Who’s to say it’s not a fancy antique dagger and nothing more? Faith has a lot to do with how you look at things.”

“You don’t understand. The talisman confers the power to kill in secret. It’s said to be charmed so the victim can’t see it coming until it’s too late. Although it will not harm a virgin member of the Sisterhood.

“Remember I told you the purebloods hate men? The purebloods are a kind of self-appointed genetic police force. Whenever a member of the Sisterhood royally screws up and bears a human male child, the purebloods are supposed to use the talisman to assassinate her as the ultimate punishment. Each sacrifice to the Demon Mother recharges the talisman’s batteries for another twenty years. The twenty-year cycle is renewable over and over, as long as no more than twenty years pass by without the talisman taking the life of an errant Sisterhood member. And the sacrifice always follows the same brutal ritualistic pattern. You saw it with Gwendace.” She shuddered.

“But wait—that makes no sense,” I said. “How would Madeleine have known all this? She couldn’t have been a purifier of blood, right? She was just a mixed-up kid with a mental problem.”

Liz shook her head sadly. “I don’t know, either. Maybe she picked it up on the Internet.”

 

 

I returned to the office and got to work. The phone rang and I was unexpectedly called out to trial the following morning on the Weegers case.

The call to trial is an invitation I always RSVP with a yes. Mark Kane wouldn’t have it any other way, even though it generally consumes my every late-night hour in feverish trial preparation. There are only two ways a firm like ours makes money: trying cases and settling cases. Any continuance delays a case for months. That costs the firm time and money while the injury itself becomes stale. I’ve always believed a whiplash or back strain has a limited shelf life with a jury, regardless of how adroitly the Dr. Kokkers of the world can testify as to permanency, pain-producing residuals, and the like. So I announced the Weegers case ready over the phone.

As soon as I hung up, I called Janis in. “Do me a big favor, will you?”

“Bigger than Saturday night?”

“Not that kind of favor. I need somebody to call Kokker. He’s not depped up for the Weegers case so I’m going to need his live testimony at the trial.”

She sighed. “You know how much I don’t like talking to Hairless. Can’t you do it yourself?”

It wasn’t like Janis to be insubordinate. My heart died within me when I thought about Madeleine. Obviously Diaz hadn’t gotten around to telling her yet.

“I don’t like talking to him, either. I have my own reasons.”

“Is one of them that you’re living with his runaway wife?”

Her remark took me aback, although I knew Janis had a preternatural ability to know all office gossip first. “If you must know, yes. Diane invited her. And she’s not his runaway wife, by the way. If Kokker thinks he’s rid of her, he’s mistaken. She told me only last night she thinks she still loves him.”

“Lovely,” Janis sneered. For a split-second, the set of her jaw looked hard as any man’s. I thought to myself that she obviously wasn’t a woman who honored the sacrament of marriage.

“What about you, Ricky?” She interrupted my thinking with a haughty, condescending tone—a gloating and perfidious gleam in her eye I found absolutely predatory.

“What about me what?” I managed.

“How do you go about honoring the sacrament of marriage?”

Dumfounded, I stammered, “What in the—”

“What, Ricky?” she taunted. “What in the hell? Or, for emphasis, what in the fuck? Which impotent expression pops into your transparent mind for the occasion? I’ve always preferred the F-word myself for a masculine exclamation of consternation—especially when said with just the right amount of chest-thumping bravado. Calculated to make all us little girlies swoon, while the air around us positively crackles with testosterone energy, don’t you think?”

“Janis—”

“You silly, self-deluded fool! I could have you inside me Saturday night or any other night I care to choose. I could do you right under little wifey-poo’s nose.”

“Don’t call her that! Diaz did, and I almost called him out for it.”

“I know,” she laughed with scorn, her cobra eyes never leaving mine, seeking out my reaction. “Where do you think he picked up on the expression? That man never had an original thought in his life. He and I often talk about your wife while we’re making love. He’s hot for her, you know. Fantasizes all the time about how he’d like to—what’s that word again? Oh, yes—how he’d like to fuck her.”

“You lying bitch!”

She mimicked astonishment. “Why, Ricky! Don’t tell me you haven’t suspected. The poor man’s been so lonely since his dear, dead Ellen was consigned to the ground. She lies there still, making her own gravy as the saying goes. John so wants to ‘put it to Diane’—his very words. I oblige him any way I can, but every time I take him to the brink of paradise, I know it’s Diane’s face he sees under him. Her mouth receiving him, moving and working on him. Her ass cheeks obediently parting—”

Blame it on the Crankenstein. I must have charged her then; I don’t remember anything until the two of us fell sprawling onto my couch. My hands bound her wrists and stretched her arms over her head. It was like one of those dreams where an impossibly powerful adversary brushes off all your fight with amusement. I kept whispering shut up… shut up… shut up—livid yet still mindful of being overheard—while she only smiled and murmured back one fantasy after another, all so hurtful and so specific that I knew she had to be telling me the truth after all. John Diaz had designs on my wife.

“Leave her to him,” she spoke into my ear. “The woman has no imagination beyond color schemes and menu planning. She’d make a perfect cop’s wife. You know in your heart it’s true. She’s no intellectual match for a man like you. You and I were meant for each other—we’re soul mates, the two of us. I feel as though I’ve known you all my life, ever since you were born. I know you feel that way, too.”

She began gently moving her hips under me in undulating waves like a snake.

“Give me the dagger, Ricky,” she said at last. “You know it’s me you’ve always wanted. I can see into your heart as though it were made of crystal. Give me the dagger and you can have me, do anything you want with me. I’ll be yours and yours alone. Every time will be like our first time together.”

I peered into Janis’s sky-blue eyes, and saw my own silhouetted reflection there like a depraved stereopticon. It took all I had in me to break that clinch. I stood up and began straightening my clothes.

“And what about my four kids?” I said, sickened by her arrogant smile and enraged that she still played me.“Am I supposed to walk out on them, too? I don’t have your damn dagger, and even if I did, Diane’s worth ten of you. No, I take that back. It’s an affront to Diane even mentioning you in the same sentence with her. You’re not in the same class.”

“Are you so sure?” She wore an ironic, self-possessed expression while reclining on the couch—languid as Cleopatra.

“You’re the one who’d make a good cop’s wife, not Diane,” I said, raising my voice. “So go on, get out of here, I’m busy. Go be a cop’s wife!”

Diaz opened my office door and stared at me. “Problem?”

Janis stood up, slinked to his side, slipped her arm around his waist, and let her hand fall to caress his wallet pocket as she steered him back out the door.

“No problem at all, John,” she cooed. “Ricky wants to marry me off to the police department, that’s all. Interested?”

His deep voice took on a tremolo of excitement. “That’s not a bad idea.”

I focused on the retreating high-water cheeks of his ass and saw them out the door. Janis’s manicured hand seemed at ease riding there, but all I could see was my Diane’s hand in its place.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty – I Found My Thrill on Vatican Hill

 

I was not feeling like myself when I called Kokker, fearing that somehow even over the telephone he would pick up on what I’d been doing with Sandra. But if he did, Kokker gave no indication. He sounded pleasant and affable, readily agreeing to appear and testify on such short notice without a subpoena. With all the equanimity of a man who has shared his wife with many men and many women, he made no mention of Sandra other than to inquire politely after her welfare. Could we discuss the Weegers case? He hadn’t yet eaten. Wondered whether I had. Preferred to meet over lunch. How about Bullock’s?

Bullock’s was the kind of steakhouse where they offer Sunday brunch and book a harp player to remind you what day it is. Even though it was centrally located in Belleville, Diane and I had never been there—except one anniversary—because the place was so pricey. Kokker probably had lunch there every day from the way the staff greeted him, bowing and scraping. We were ushered past linen-draped tables set with leaded crystal water glasses, thick napkins in monogrammed holders, and gleaming silver into a private room with a fireplace and a bay window, one that overlooked a vista of rolling lawn and a lake in the distance. It looked like another country: a long way from brown-bagging it. Kokker ordered the chateaubriand. I’d only heard it ordered in movies and wasn’t sure whether it was a steak or a drink. I told him I wasn’t hungry but wouldn’t mind a cup of espresso. Kokker seemed disappointed.

“Never ignore the appetites,” he cautioned. “As a practicing physician, I’m acutely aware that in cases of internal derangement, the appetites are the first things to go.”

I tried to steer the conversation to the Misty Weegers case, but Kokker wasn’t having any. “How’s my dear wife enjoying her fugue state?” he asked with an amused air. He eyed me over the single fresh-cut rose standing like a cautionary finger in the crystal bud vase between us.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t be the one to tell you.”

“Nonsense! Who better than you, Ricky? After all, you’ve been fucking her for years. Right under your loving wife’s Russian nose, too—with your four little Soviet Pioneers all snug in their beds. I’m odd man out in your little troika.”

I looked out over the polo field of a lawn.“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “I was about to explain that Sandra should be the one to tell you that she seems deeply committed to her marriage now. I think you ought to bear that in mind before you start condemning her.”

“Condemn her? Why, quite the contrary, Ricky. Surely by now you realize that I’m hardly the jealous type. I’m gratified to find that you’re quite the same as I. As I explained to you during our afternoon meeting in my rathskeller, you and your lovely wife hold an open invitation to our soirees. Why, Lupercalia is just around the corner. I’m sure Diane would appreciate the diversion. The opportunity to hobnob with many of the movers and shakers in the greater Saint Louis area. The business and local governmental leaders. The judiciary.” Kokker arched an eyebrow.

“Now when I call you to testify in the Weegers case—”

“Hang the Weegers case!”

“Doctor, that’s exactly what I’m afraid you’re likely to do, given the events of the past few days.” The waitress brought a cutting board laden with fresh-baked bread, whipped butter, and a huge serrated knife.

“Recent events do concern me, but not in the way you might imagine,” Kokker said after she had left. “Bread?”

I shook my head.

“I remember my first time with another man’s wife,” Kokker mused.

I started. He continued, as though enjoying my discomfiture. “Confuses you at first, doesn’t it? Unnerves you. You think you won’t be able to live with yourself, with what you’ve done. Then the idea of it possesses and captivates you. Like all truly new experiences, it’s actually quite liberating.”

All I could manage was a sigh. The sunlight glinting off the thawing lake seemed to wink at me conspiratorially.

Kokker’s fat face munched the bread. I said, “Liberated is the last thing I’m feeling at the moment.”

“Don’t be so modest, Ricky. My wife and my former star masseuse? Soon you’ll be fucking me.”

“And yet it doesn’t seem to bother you at all. Why?”

Kokker finished the last of the slice of bread before going on. “Why, you ask? It’s all very simple, really. We want to reap more souls. Yours. Diane’s. As many souls as we can harvest. We want everyone to be as happy and enlightened as we are. The world was made for us, and we for the world. Your own Bible tells you that the world loves its own and cherishes its own.”

“This is insane.”

“Ricky, ask yourself this. Can you even imagine what it must be like never to be afraid? Has your romper room religion—with all its pretenses, pomp, and circumstance—ever given you that? Answer me truthfully.”

“But that’s all part of temptation—”

“Adapt or die!” he intoned with an orator’s aplomb. “The code of the real world, the world we live in. But once we do adapt, what joys! If your religion forbids you to adapt to the world, if you’re forever out of step and out of sorts because of your constricting superstition, I say pluck it out and cast it away! Open your eyes, Ricky. You’re in paradise right now; you’re only forcing yourself to pretend that it’s hell.”

He reached for my hand, but I snatched it away. He rested his palm on my side of the table. “You’re afraid of what’s in the mail. Afraid of who’s at the other end of the telephone. Afraid of your boss. Afraid of the judges. Afraid that on some state regulator’s arbitrary whim, you’ll one day lose your hard-won ticket to practice law and with it your wife and kiddies. You’re even afraid, Ricky, that Mark Kane will take a notion to replace you with somebody younger and cheaper. After all, you’re nothing more than a hack in a hack-buyer’s market—a Negro slave in a marketplace teeming with darkies. To a man like Mark Kane, you’re not worth even sixty seconds of face-time on local television. Doesn’t sound much like paradise to me.”

“Neither does marrying a sex maniac without a prenup. How happy and enlightened is that?”

He seemed annoyed that I’d questioned his world-view. Maybe he didn’t believe in it himself. There are hypocrites in every religion.

“What do you want, Kokker?”

“Why, Ricky,” he intoned, feigning surprise, “I hope today’s luncheon hasn’t placed us on a last-name basis so soon before your little trial. What’s her name again—Weegers?”

“I’ll ask again. What do you want, Doctor?”

“That’s better.” He grasped the knife’s bone handle and sawed away at the bread loaf, carving a huge slab this time. He offered it to me, but I shook my head. “You don’t know what you’re missing. This restaurant is truly four-star.” He spread a liberal swirl of butter. “Speaking of stars, and masseuses, I’m disappointed your lovely assistant couldn’t join us today.”

“Janis had a lunch date with a detective friend of hers.”

Kokker shook his head with disdain. “Such a waste,” he said. “A truly remarkable woman. An advanced soul. I sense she’s lived many lives before.”

“A friend of mine told me you’re quite the dabbler in religions. Is Hindu the flavor of the month?”

“I’m interested in that old-time religion,” he responded, unperturbed. “The truly primordial religion, before all the parades of snake-charmers and medicine men muddied up the spiritual waters. Your pretender from Palestine wasn’t the first, and he certainly won’t be the last. But before all that, there was and is a spiritual government, which has always ruled this world and always shall. My goal as one of the truly enlightened is to tap into it, to mold it to my own devices. William Blake and W. B. Yeats are my prophets. Ergo I trust you can appreciate my indignation when a certain religious artifact suddenly vanishes from my collection. A certain… ancient talisman, shall we say?” Kokker’s fingers fondly caressed the knife’s handle.

“You sit here and mock my Christianity, then expect me to play your games with you?” I stood up and would have thrown down my napkin if I’d had one in my lap.

“Were your clandestine escapades with Sandra some new sacrament I’ve missed hearing about?” he smirked. “I thought there were only seven, for the Seven Hills of Rome. Speaking of Rome, do you know there was a cult roughly contemporaneous to your early Christians who worshipped a bull-god they called Attis? It’s quite fascinating, really. Sit down, Ricky. I’ll tell you all about it.”

What could I say? I needed his testimony to keep my job to keep my wife and family, to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. He had me. I sat.

“Attis worshippers would climb into a kind of pit covered by a huge grate. A live bull would be led on top of the grate and then sacrificed. Its blood would shower down on the ecstatic supplicant below. He or she would be ‘washed in the blood of the bull’ as the saying goes. Guess where these gay festivities took place?”

“I’m on the edge of my seat.”

“Vatican Hill,” he shouted triumphantly.

“What’s your point?”

“My point? My point is that fad religions come and go, some in two-thousand-year cycles, but all are a corruption or perversion of the true religion. All are bathed in blood; blood in one form or fashion reigns in every one of them. Have you ever considered that, Ricky? That drinking blood or washing in blood might not be unique to your own morbid faith?”

“Stop it.”

“Stop what? Stop probing every unquestioned assumption your pathetic existence—it can hardly be called a life—is built upon? Come on, Ricky. You’ve had a taste of paradise. It’s pretty scary at first, and nothing like you anticipated. Join us. Don’t deny me twice. You’ll never have to be afraid of anything ever again.”

The waitress brought Kokker’s meal and my steaming cup of espresso. The door to the private salon snicked closed behind her before he spoke again. “Rather interesting, really, the pervasive role bodily fluids play in religion. At least one sect of Gnostic Christians, for example, worshipped semen and used it as a sacrament in their rituals. They regarded it as man’s opalescent psyche, the very distillation of his spiritual essence.” Kokker spooned a dollop of sour cream from his baked potato and ever so delicately dipped the tip of his tongue before I looked away. The taste of the espresso reminded me of burning tires. I thought I should say something in defense of my faith. Ricky Galeer, Defender of the Faith.

“Just because some other beliefs have imitated ours—”

“You buggered my wife,” Kokker interrupted. “Let’s hear your sermon.”

“My point is, there is one true Faith.”

“I agree.”

“No, you don’t. There’s supposed to be adversity and temptation in the world. We’re supposed to be in the world, but not of it. It’s a kind of test.”

Kokker eyed me like a piece of meat. “Pass-fail, or graded on a bell-shaped curve? I thought your Christ died for you. Why do you still need an entrance exam?”

“You wouldn’t understand,” I sighed.

“Have you ever considered missionary work? You seem to have a gift for it.”

“Sure, I stumbled. Badly. I don’t even understand why I did what I did, or why I even wanted to. It was like I was under hypnosis.”

“Self-hypnosis,” Kokker offered.

“But I know I’ll be redeemed by faith.” My words sounded hollow in the quiet salon, as though I were trying to convince myself more than anyone else, but Kokker seemed already to have lost interest in the discussion.

“Give me the talisman, Ricky. If it’s money you want for it, simply name your price. We won’t quibble over your highly dubious claim to possession.”

“I don’t claim to possess it. It’s been stolen, but not by me.” Faced with his suspicious expression, I traced the dagger’s chain of custody as far as I could for him, ending with Madeleine’s disappearance. For some reason, I thought it important not to tell Kokker about her death. “Once it’s found, assuming that ever happens, your talisman will wind up in some police evidence locker.”

“That child must be found and the talisman wrested from her grasp,” Kokker warned. “It’s no plaything. Only I know its true power.”

“Suppose you tell me and we’ll both know?”

A wary look crossed his face. “She might cut herself,” he said. “For instance.”

“Somehow, I don’t think she’s worried. Why don’t you tell me why everybody’s really so interested in that toad-sticker? Or should I ask Diaz, Janis’s detective friend? Maybe you’d care to file a burglary report with him?”

All the arrogance went out of him at that. He forked up a Heimlich-maneuver-sized bite of the rich beef and chewed it as though it were his last. He swallowed before he answered. “You like my wife? Does she please you? Bring me back my talisman, the two of you, and you can have her to do with as you please.”

“Shouldn’t she have something to say about that?”

“Spare me, Ricky. You’re no feminist—simply a sexual addict in denial, suffering from a profound lack of impulse control. And after all, my wife chose you, not the other way around.”

“I have a wife already.”

“That hasn’t slowed you down up until now. I’ll tender a final offer: my wife and five hundred thousand dollars for the return of the talisman, no questions asked. Consider it a dowry. Simply say the word, and I’ll instruct Mark Kane himself to draw up the papers.”

“Mark Kane himself hasn’t drawn up papers in twenty years. He’s the Howard Hughes of the Metro East.”

Kokker continued undeterred. “Sandra is truly an exceptional partner. As you’ve assuredly discovered by now, she’s not a normal woman by any means. It tears at my heart to even consider letting her go. Seven hundred fifty thousand—untraceable cash, small denominations. My non-negotiable, final offer.”

“I don’t have the talisman.”

He eyed me like a pasty-faced Roman Emperor about to turn thumbs down on me in the Coliseum. “Then get it,” he said through clenched teeth.

 

I’ve always loved fine dining and seeing how the other half lives. Resisting the urge to ask Kokker to read my fortune in the espresso grounds, I took my leave of him and went back to the office. I carried unaccustomed big figures in my head. One was Sandra’s big figure. The other was the boxcar figure her husband had just bid me for the ridding of her: more money than we needed to get out of debt, infuse Diane’s business with ready cash, and even start my own practice. But how could I get the money out of Kokker without destroying my marriage? And what papers did Kokker want Mark Kane to prepare? In any court, the contract he proposed would be held illegal and unenforceable as being meretricious and in derogation of marriage. The money he was offering me had strings attached. In my experience, money like that went hand-in-hand with either one of two things: a horrible, maiming injury or a crime.

As if summoned by my obsessive thoughts, Sandra sat waiting in the lobby alongside Misty and Celestal Weegers. They were a study in contrasts. Any given piece of jewelry on Sandra cost more than Celestal’s car. Misty had brought along the baby. Sandra was all over the little one. She cooed at it and wormed her finger into its palm.

Sandra caught my eye first. Sandra caught every man’s eye first. “Got a sec?”

Under Celestal’s accusing stare, I walked her back into my office and closed the door, watching her hips and flanks move in the tight black dress. “Do you guys do wills?” she inquired.

“Our firm doesn’t, but Duane Benoit, with the probate firm across the hall, can certainly accommodate you. Dressed for a funeral?”

She nodded sadly. “My own, once I go see if Kirk will take me back.”

“Don’t you and he have an estate plan?”

“Up until recently, I didn’t see the urgency.”

I remembered the medallion-stripping ceremony and how it had seemed to age her. The grayness of a Belleville January afternoon now washed all the color out of her face. With her platinum hair and shimmering, black silk dress, she looked like a film noir femme fatale shot in black and white. I was about to tell her so when she asked me, “Can I rely on your discretion?”

“Of course.”

“Running into those two young kids out there in your waiting room is more than a co-inky-dink. I’d just wanted to drop by and see if you were free for lunch and discuss our whole situation, but there they were, and with a rug rat, yet. For maybe the first time in my life, I know what it means to feel guilty.”

“What do you have to feel guilty about, Sandra?”

“Discretion, remember?”

“Absolutely.”

She looked me directly in the eye and said, “I killed Celestal Weegers’s father.”

My chest heaved as though I had sprinted up three flights of stairs. “Pete Weegers hanged himself.”

“He had help.” She shook her head with infinite regret. “You see the burdens I’ve been carrying around?”

I hugged her, encircling in my arms the heaving amplitude of two big burdens she’d been carrying around. Her breasts were sentient beings—poor players wearing the twin masks of comedy and tragedy—pressing their faces against my chest. “I don’t believe you,” I said.

She pushed me away gently. She had a faraway look in her eye, staring across the abyss of the public square at the fourth floor of the courthouse as though the Angel of Death awaited her there. “The night of that massage parlor murder years ago—you know the one I mean—where that poor girl got her tits hacked off by some maniac? It was my first week working for Kirk. I was nineteen, and it was my first real job, not counting carny rat or fast food. I could tell Kirk’s Fruit of the Looms were starting to bind because of me, but I wanted to play my cards right.

“There weren’t too many patients that night. Pete was the last one of the evening; he’d hurt his back on the job or something. Kirk was starting to get antsy to make his daily trek to the Salome Spa, three doors down the strip mall from his clinic. Pete and I were the only ones watching when Kirk took off at seven-thirty-five. Kirk never came back all night, leaving me to lock up.

“I saw Mars lights reflected on the front windows of the clinic at eight-forty-five. When that big detective Diaz started canvassing the strip mall the next morning, I was Kirk’s only alibi keeping him at the clinic and away from the Spa at the time of the murder. See, I sorta figured he did it and all. That’s when I started hearing wedding bells in my future.”

“What made you think he did it?”

“Call it woman’s intuition. Plus, he showed me a bloody knife.”

“Why would you want to marry a guy you thought was a murderer?”

She shrugged. “A girl will do a lot of things for financial security. Plus, it was kind of a thrill-seeking thing for me at the time, a power trip. Forcing a fucked-up, scary guy to the altar. I was into a lot of occult shit myself back then, but I didn’t have to cast any spells on Kirk Kokker. The threat of the death penalty was enough to do that for me.”

“What about Pete Weegers?”

“My alibi for Kirk was no good if that big detective found Pete Weegers to shoot it full of holes. So I lured Pete into this woodshed behind his house, and you know the rest.”

“No. Tell me.”

“I told him it’d make the sex better. He slipped the noose on himself, smiling all the way, even after I kicked the sawhorse out from under him. He just hung there, smiling and waiting for me to do him. I had to zip him up, once he was dead, to make it look good. He’s come visit me after. He actually doesn’t hold it against me. You were there one of those times. Remember?”

I thought of Bobbi. What would she make out of this case? No statute of limitations on murder. Hell of a good insanity defense, though. “You left an eyewitness, Sandra. Eight-year-old Celestal was hiding in the shed. He saw the whole thing.”

“You’re shitting me!” Her eyes lit up. She bared her teeth in a rictus of panic.

“He’s in denial or something,” I hurried to add. “He thinks his dad hanged himself. Lately, he’s pissed that somebody exhumed his dad’s body and stole it.”

Her expression relaxed. “That’s Artie’s handiwork. I had nothing to do with it.”

The intercom came to life with a familiar voice. “Ricky, are you entertaining the lovely Sandra Kokker? Don’t keep her all to yourself.”

Mark Kane, glad-handing her electronically. Sandra’s social voice rose to meet his. “Hi, Mark. What brings you into the office on a blue Monday?”

“Watching out for my favorite client. Bring her on over here, Ricky. Sandra and I have a lot to catch up on.”

I escorted Sandra out the door of my office, hung a roscoe, hung a louie at the end of the long corridor, and pushed open the big double doors—only after knocking and hearing a hearty, “Come on in!”

The smell of Polo permeated the rosewood-paneled room. The artwork hanging on the walls looked like it might have been painted by Hitler. There, behind a presidential-sized desk, sat Mark Kane himself. He looked smaller than in his TV ads, in which the TV Mark Kane strode up the steps to the courthouse, his Rinse-o-Blue pompadour reflecting Old Glory, his craggy face set like cement. Ready to do battle with the big insurance companies, the voice-over said. An admiring crowd of local extras fell back in awe of him.

The real Mark Kane stood formally and bent to kiss Sandra’s manicure like a Eurotrash count. The glass surface of his desktop made a mirrored meditation pool reflecting a two-shot of them but leaving me out of camera range. He offered her a drink from a crystal decanter; she declined. I stood there at the sideboard like a waiter while the two of them made preliminary small talk. Then Mark Kane—without breaking eye contact with Sandra—told me to “close the door on your way out, Ricky.”

As I did so, I nearly ran into Duane Benoit rushing headlong down the corridor, wearing the look of the summoned. At least we had that in common.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One – All We Have to Sell

 

I brought back the Weegers. The smell of them was rancid deep-frying oil and old denim soaked in BO. They were as oblivious to it as a skunk to its own perfume, but it threw me until olfactory fatigue set in. Celestal constantly interrupted my trial-prep prepared speech with thoughts of his own on another subject. Nobody seemed to want to talk about the Weegers trial, not even the Weegers.

“I found out who desecrated my daddy’s grave,” Celestal volunteered proudly.

“Really? How’d you manage that?”

“Taught myself the Internet.”

“So what’d you find out?”

“They’s devil-worshippers, all right.” From his shirt pocket, he pulled out a flyer from the instant-oil-change grease pit where he worked and read from notes he’d scrawled in the margins. “They have these here jamborees, like Candle Mass Eve—that’s February first—and they’s a big ol’ orgy they’re throwin’ on Lupercalia—that’s February fifteenth. But they’re savin’ the worst ‘til last this February.”

“Probably trying to compete with the ratings sweeps on TV. What’s this worst thing they have planned?”

“Something so bad they only have it once every four years. It’s called the Lilith Sabbat, and it kicks off at midnight on February twenty-ninth. That there’s Leap Year Day, Mr. Galeer. It was on that very date, way back in sixteen hundred ninety and two, they up and arrested all them Salem witches. Do you know there’s one of their local covens, they call ‘em, no more’n a hoot and a holler over yonder?” He pointed out the window, west, toward Missouri.

“Where, exactly?”

“That’s the part’s got me all catawampus. I still can’t rightly say where, but that there’s what I’m a ‘fixin’ to find out.”

“Celestal, I’m going to give you a piece of free advice: don’t try and run this down yourself any more. If you’re on to something, let the cops handle it from here on out. The people you’re tracking are dangerous, the way I hear it. Dangerous as in deadly. You have a baby to think about now.”

“What kind of pappy would I be to him if I was to let some grave-robbin’ heathens get away with desecrating his grampappy’s memory?”

“Celestal, I don’t know what kind of shivaree you’re planning, but I sure don’t want to see it backfire.” I handed him one of Diaz’s cards. “Call a professional.”

I could tell he was about to reply, but then the blood ran out of his usually sallow face. It was a moment before I recognized the realization that haunted him: that I might be one of them.

I gave the Weegers my speech about eye contact with the jury, about dressing clean but not fancy, and about the mention of the word insurance in court being like saying a dirty word in church. I helped Misty prepare a mental checklist of all the specific ways the injury had affected her activities of daily living—a day in the life of Misty Weegers. Letting her yes be yes and her no be no during cross-examination. Don’t get angry with the other lawyer, but don’t explain, either. They both nodded away. The baby was getting fussy; it was about time for Misty to give him some titty. I knew just how he felt.

My intercom came alive the moment they left. Mark Kane. Two words: “See me.”

Sandra had gone, but her lavender perfume lingered. Kane didn’t ask me to sit. I stood behind one of his winged back leather chairs. Diane would have known its pedigree.

“You like working here, Ricky? You like a regular paycheck? Eagle squats and shits right in your open palm every other Friday around here for years, am I lying?”

Anger and fear, as always, arm-wrestled to a draw in the core of my being. I still suffered from a kind of moral paralysis that had dogged my so-called career for over two decades. So instead of fighting or fleeing, I stood at attention and tried to suck it up.

“Kirk Kokker’s pissed,” he went on. Both of us knew his opening questions had been rhetorical. “I’m not one to get into anybody’s private life—hell, I’ve got a private life of my own—but apparently your wife’s been putting some screwy ideas into Sandra’s head lately. Crackpot religious ideas or something. Now, I need men like Kirk Kokker to be happy, and so do you. My practice and your continued lucrative employment depend on that fact. Oh, by the way.” He fixed me with a flinty stare. “If you ever try fucking her in the office again, I’ll crucify you.”

I pitched forward, managing to catch my forearms on the winged backs until the room stopped spinning.

“I don’t know how you can afford to keep her in the first place. I must be overpaying you, or else you’re embezzling from me.” He sighed and leaned back in his chair. “You’re not embezzling from me, are you, Ricky?”

“No, sir.”

His eyes crinkled. He gave me the warm, television commercial smile. “Do I have your word on that?”

“You have my word on it. Yes, sir.”

“Your word is good with me, Ricky. The only thing men like you and me really have to sell is our integrity.”

I was game. The whole sordid incident had become a codicil to my life. And if nothing changed, it would become my epitaph.

“Anyway, getting back to the subject at hand, she’s taken a shine to you, Sandra Kokker has. Even tells me she’s got your bun in her oven. Do I embarrass you? I hope not. We’re both men of the world here. We take what we want, you and me, and leave it to others to clean up the mess afterward. Am I right?”

I nodded, open-mouthed and flummoxed. It was an expression I was getting used to wearing lately.

“A mistress like Sandra Kokker is more expensive than a tag team of blackmailers, but a million dollars is still a lot of money, even with today’s inflation.”

“I know.”

“Do you, Ricky? Let me show you something, then. Something a man like you might appreciate.” He rose with the celerity of a much younger man. For the first time I became aware that the walk-in vault door stood ajar. He stepped in, emerging a moment later carrying a black catalog case. He hefted it onto his green desk blotter and popped the latches, tilting it for me to peek inside.

I inched forward and took a look. Neat rows of bundled legal tender, bank-banded, all new hundreds. Kane slipped the paper band off one stack as though he were undressing a woman and let me handle the currency to prove it was real. Benjamin Franklin gave me his Mona Lisa smile. More of a pursed-lipped smirk, actually. A hundred Ben Franklin clones in that one stack alone—ten thousand dollars—in my hand. Their eyes followed me as I riffled the bills; the serial numbers danced and changed. Not sequential. Random. Untraceable.

I handed the back to him, exhilarated yet intimidated by the powdery stiff texture of new currency. He crumpled the band, replaced the loose bundle in the case, closed the lid, and snapped the latches shut. “Why don’t you try lifting it and carrying it around for a while yourself?” Kane offered. “It’s not every day a man has the opportunity to lug a suitcase with more cash in it than he’s earned in—what? Your whole life up until now, Ricky?”

Kane insisted until I did just that: hoisted the case off the desk and schlepped it around his office in a circle, like a medicine man carrying a totem. It weighed about as much as a small car battery. Finally I handed it back to him. “I don’t know what to say,” I said, shrugging off the weight of the case and dropping into one of the winged backs.

“That’s your problem, Ricky. You never know what to say. Say ‘yes,’ damn it! This firm will handle your divorce, strictly as a professional courtesy. Benoit’s firm can take care of Sandra’s end. All you have to do is convince her to waive any and all claims to a property settlement—or maintenance—in lieu of a single, million-dollar cash payment to you as nominal trustee. That and get her the hell out of Dodge—permanently—before her condition becomes an embarrassment to Kirk.”

“No judge would ever approve it,” I protested. “It’s a contract of adhesion. Fraud on its face.”

“Jerry O’Byrne still owes me a few favors.”

“You’ve got this all worked out, don’t you? But you’re forgetting one thing: I don’t want a divorce. I’m happily married.”

“That’s not what John Diaz’s been telling me lately.” Kane circled around his desk and stood over me. I rose awkwardly. He offered a hand. After I’d taken his—the first time we’d shaken hands since the job interview—I drew back a new hundred. He had palmed it a moment ago before replacing the stack.

“A little earnest money, just for thinking it over.”

 

 

“Mommy called me the B word.” Tearful with the news, Anastasia met me at the kitchen door when I returned home after six-thirty. I found the others huddled in their rooms, unnaturally owl-eyed and quiet—the way I’d seen them behave before whenever an intimidating stranger came to call.

No cooking smells, no dinner preparation underway at all, and no homework spread out on the kitchen table. All the shop lights had been left burning after hours. I approached down the corridor. Even the taciturn saints seemed apprehensive. A guilty unease permeated the air—the ozone calm between lightning discharges at the height of an electrical storm.

Diane reclined on a puce velvet Victorian fainting couch in the salon, her expression that of a predator lying in wait. Her long blond hair cascaded over milk-white shoulders bared by a form-fitting, sleeveless red knit top. I was more interested in the plunging V-neckline. My eyes slithered down to her straining cleavage. Then I saw it: Sandra’s Cultus Sororitas medallion, its live coal rubies glowing like a branding iron, suspended around her fair neck as though it had belonged there all along. Something in her eyes told me she knew everything.

“Where’d you find that?” I asked.

“Your secret lovers Janis and Sandra—how do you suppose they’ll react to the news about your dead whore?” She said it calmly, as one might choose a menu item in a restaurant.

“Diane, I—”

“You had your head between Mad’s legs in a parked car. You pissed in Janis’s mouth that same night in her shower stall. You had anal sex with Sandra right there in your office. Stop me if I should happen to misstate anything, won’t you?”

“I don’t know what’s come over me lately,” I began, staring at her feet. Even they were beautiful. “I’ve made a few mistakes—”

“Mistakes? Is that what you call fly-by-night sex with the woman I thought was my friend, the woman I took into our formerly happy home? The woman who now thinks she’s carrying your bastard child? Well, you can have her and her bastard. I’ll throw in our four brats too, since you seem to like kids so goddamn much. Let you and her cook for them, clean up after them, wash and fold their dirty laundry, and wipe their dirty asses!”

“Diane—”

“Fuck you.”

“It’s the medallion, Diane. It’s making you do crazy things, putting insane ideas in your head. It carries a curse.”

She rose only then from her recumbent posture. As she drew nearer, I saw her mouth contort. I thought she might cry, but when she reached hugging and consoling distance, she spat in my face. I felt her saliva run down my cheek like a warm caress until it pooled in my collar and grew cold there. Her face, nose-to-nose with mine, challenged me. I backed up a step, reflexively glancing aside to check whether the drapes were closed against nosy neighbors or late-coming customers drawn by the shop lights. That was all the opening Diane needed to start pummeling me with her fists, gnashing her teeth, panting with the effort. I raised my arms in front of me and crossed my forearms against the blows. It had the same effect as holding a crucifix up to a vampire; she recoiled and covered her eyes with one palm.

I’d already taken too many Crankenstein breaks to count; for some reason I flashed on that night with Cheryl. The whole scene—the spitting, the recriminations, the talking dirty, even the blows—turned me on again. I reached out, grasped Diane’s top with both hands and yanked it down.

There was no brand of Lucifer to be seen.

She primped, waggling her bare breasts at me. “I think I’ll keep my new necklace.” She then gave me the finger, as casually as that. “It’s you I don’t think I’ll keep!”

 

 

I drove north of town until I sighted the Sphinx Lounge unnaturally lighting up the horizon ahead. It was early enough that the place wasn’t crowded yet. I took a seat far left ringside, by the stairs leading to the stage, and ordered a double Chivas on the rocks. The waitress—a Babylonian number with a truck driver’s face, steel mill shoulders, and breasts like dirigibles—told me I’d been comped the drink. I twisted around to the back bar and saw Ramses Ware seated there next to the waitress station, his shades pointed in my direction. I raised my glass to him in acknowledgment; my hand shook so badly I spilled a few drops down my arm. Ramses said something to the bartender, pushed off, and started his way over. I managed to lower my drink back down to the tabletop, then bend and sip generously from it like a skid row rummy, before he pulled up a chair next to mine.

“Thank you,” I croaked. He said nothing—didn’t even smile.

“Little trouble at home,” I volunteered, trying to make conversation. “You know. Women.” Still nothing. I affected a laugh. “So, what time the show start?”

“Hey, man,” Ramses said, his voice soft and commanding. “Tell your friends it weren’t me. I never had no bone to pick with the unfortunate victim, know what I’m sayin’?”

“Oh, hey, I don’t think Diaz thinks that. I don’t believe he’s even considering that. I mean—” But Ware was already headed back to the bar.

“Tell him for me,” he called back without turning around.

The calming effect of the premium liquor coursed through me. This time I was able to handle the rocks glass like a gentleman. Even though I signaled the waitress for another one of the same, she still lugged her blue-collar tits down the full length of the theater aisle to take my order tableside. I laid the new hundred—Kane’s earnest money—on the table and told her to keep them coming and to let me know when that ran out. She snatched up the bill and stuffed it snugly into her steel-belted lame belly dancer’s halter.

“Wish I’d thought to tuck it in there myself,” I told her.

“Finish that drink, hon, and maybe I’ll let you have a try,” she lilted with an accent that said West Granite City via Dover, Tennessee.

I sucked down one scotch after another and watched the place fill up. Every off-duty cop in the place made me think of Diaz. Finally the lights dimmed and the show began. My waitress took her turn up there with all the others and showed me and everyone else what she had under that halter besides Ben Franklin.

If every man reminded me of Diaz that night, every woman reminded me of Diane. Diane shooing the children from our bedroom; Diane working out on the Stairmaster; Diane working out under me—her pale blue eyes gazing into mine—showing me the face of paradise.

The paradise face. I called my waitress over.

“You got a mirror with a straight edge?”

She looked left and right, alarmed. “Uh, we don’t allow that stuff in here, hon. Now, I got my break coming up. If you and me was to step outside to the parking lot, maybe take a little drive—”

“No, I need it to look at something, that’s all.”I threw her a five-dollar bill. She came back a few moments later with a pocket mirror.

“I need that back when you’re done with it, hon, okay?”

I went for my billfold. She hovered expecting another tip but left when I pulled out Diane’s wallet-sized black-and-white bridal portrait.

The camera had caught Diane in a full-faced, high fashion pose. The picture still enchanted me—Diane’s arresting eyes, her patrician cheekbones, the delicate lines of her classic beauty.

I lined up the mirror’s edge along the vertical axis of Diane’s nose, bisecting her face from glabella to philtrum. No matter how many times I tried, from either side of the picture, the face remained exactly the same. No subtle change in physiognomy, no eyes too close together or too wide apart, no funhouse mirror distortion of her countenance when I reflected either half of her face on itself. A paper doll’s cutout face, unfolded, perfectly symmetrical—the left half the precise mirror image of the right. Why had I never noticed it before?

Diane wore the paradise face. She was one of them—had always been one of them. My mind, running a three-legged race with the crystal and the Chivas, tried to wrap itself around that astonishing revelation.

“Nice shot.” A derisive male voice over my shoulder. “Not something you see every day, though—a guy ogling his wife’s bridal picture at a strip club.” Diaz pulled up a chair uninvited. I slipped the picture into my jacket pocket along with the mirror.

“Just trying to remind myself I got better at home,” I said.

“You’re going to have to narrow it down, Counselor. When you say ‘better at home,’ you talking about wifey-poo or you mean her girlfriend?”

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Two – Stark Staring Mad

 

Diaz stayed another two hours and bought most of the rounds. His presence made me nervous—or maybe it was the crystal. Paranoid fantasies began to take over.

Finally Diaz seemed to have had enough. He drained his glass, stood, and slapped me on the back in an unaccustomed fraternal gesture, then shambled up the theater aisle and out of the club.

I sat alone and wept like a lost child—the clientele and staff must have thought I was nuts. Maybe I was nuts at that; my behavior the last few days was not that of a sane person. I decided that as soon as I got a grip on my runaway emotions, I’d go home and face whatever problems I’d created. I glanced at my watch. It had stopped at six sixteen. I tapped it. Nothing. Batteries must be dead.

The announcer’s voice startled me, sitting so close to the speakers as I was. “And now gentlemen, a new departure for the Sphinx Lounge. An initiation into the bizarre world that lurks only in the darkest corners of your fantasies: The Blood Clubs!”

I heard a savage rumble of male voices. The early Christian martyrs had heard it long before me in the arena, the obscene roar of the mob lusting for spilled blood. The announcer shouted over it. “Gentlemen, will you welcome please…the beautiful and talented young lady known only as… Gash!”

Aggro-rock blasted from the speakers. A tall, lithe woman dressed like Vampira strode onstage. The footlights surrounded her like a witch-burning bonfire. Her eyes were blackened sockets shedding griefless mascara tears. She gave the raucous crowd the finger, then reached under her skirt and openly masturbated. She began to perspire as she worked away, causing the veil of hair she’d purposely thrown over her face to mat and stick to her melting stage makeup.

There was something uncomfortably familiar about her. She flipped me the bird, painted now with menstrual gore.

“Madeleine!” I gasped. At the sound of her name, Mad tore her black Goth garments, exposing her right breast, shoulder, and arm. The crowd exploded in a roar of lusty approval. The ruby red of her CS medallion glinted in the spotlight. From somewhere hidden in her clothing, she withdrew a familiar prop: the Lilith talisman. She grasped its golden handle in her left hand.

Mad extended her right arm toward me in the attitude of a beckoning ghost, the crook of her elbow laid bare. Staring into my eyes, she pressed the curved, scythe-like tip to the pulse point of her elbow and bore down. She winced. Sitting close enough to see the tip go in, I recoiled in horror as the hemorrhage spurted forth. She drew the razor edge of the blade down the length of her forearm, splitting a bone-deep incision the whole way, inflicting impossible damage. I could hear yielding flesh as she went—the sound of a knife through taut fabric. Blood poured out of her and onto the stage. Then she drew back the dagger, slashed a match strike across her wrist perpendicular to the other gash, and let her right arm hang limp. The wounds formed a sanguine upside-down cross.

Next she went to work hacking up her right breast. Soon it, too, was criss-crossed with bloody wounds. Her brand of Lucifer she kept untouched. She expressed fresh drops of blood from her lacerated breast. Then, holding her fingers above her mouth and extending a greedy length of tongue, she caught the sprinkles.

A voice beside me confided, “I got the bitch rolling so hard on Ecstasy, man, she don’t know what the fuck she’s doin’ up there.” I turned to regard the source of that bit of insight and encountered a shaven-headed, emaciated specimen in a sleeveless black T-shirt. Every cord in his neck looked like a guitar string about to snap. He must have bought his shades from the same store as Ramses, but I still recognized the taut, twitching face of Artie Tremayne leering back at me.

“It’s me all right,” he sneered. “In the flesh. Hiding in plain sight.” He offered me some kind of tweak brother’s handshake.

“Artie, we’ve got to get a tourniquet on that arm of hers and rush her to a hospital. Then maybe a good plastic surgeon—”

“Sorry, Counselor, but like so many other less fortunate Americans nowadays, Mad and I find ourselves momentarily embarrassed by a lack of major medical insurance coverage, and besides, I’m—strictly speaking—a wanted man.”

“She’s liable to die, Artie, you crazy fuck!”

Artie gestured toward the stage. “You think?”

The place erupted in roars and cheering. I looked up at Madeleine, who now stood completely nude onstage, her rags of black clothing wadded in one hand, bloody talisman gripped in the other. She bowed extravagantly, still covered in her own blood but no longer bleeding. The coagulating blood appeared dull red. Her fair skin had closed over every wound without a trace.

The crowd thought it was stage magic, but I knew different. She flounced down from the stage and plopped herself in a chair across from Artie and me, oblivious to her own nudity. She crossed her legs, interlaced her fingers over one knee, and grinned at us with a performer’s bravura. Her breasts, tiny for a girl of her size, turned inward toward each other, her blood pooling like sweat between them.

“I feel like a great big steak.” She was wild with the drugs. “Rare. How ‘bout you, Mr. Galeer? You like ‘em pink on the inside? Oozing a little blood, maybe?”The waitress brought her a wet towel. Madeleine, bloody as Lizzie Borden, looked at her and asked, “You guys serve steaks here?”

“Kitchen’s closed,” the waitress replied in the parental tone one reserves for precocious children.

“Ok, then. I’ll have a sloe comfortable screw.”

The waitress regarded her suspiciously. “How old’re you, sweetie?”

Mad brandished the knife. A feral gleam flashed from her wide eyes. “Old enough to cut you, bitch cow.”

Artie made a noise I once heard emanate from the gibbon exhibit at the zoo in Forest Park. The waitress stood frozen with fear. On impulse, I grabbed the wet bar towel from her, lunged behind Madeleine, and looped it around her knife-wielding wrist like a tourniquet. I wound it tight until water wrung out and the talisman dropped to the floor. Mad was so messed up she thought the whole thing was funny—laughing like I was tickling her until I half expected her to fall out of her chair. I kneeled on the floor, crawled under the table, and wiped the blood off the talisman with the bar towel.

I remembered Janis’s offer. And Kokker’s. While I was down there, I ripped a foot-wide swath from around the hem of Mad’s dress and rolled the talisman in it, making a bundle about the size and shape of a billy club. I stuffed it into my pants thinking I could feel the talisman’s power between my legs—a magnetic tingling in my loins.

To make peace with the waitress, I ordered a round—a Virgin Mary for Mad, Chivas doubles for Artie and me. She told me the hundred was already all used up “what with the tip.” I was in no position to argue with her. Artie did the honors. He showed her a fifty, then thrust it so deeply into her pants that I thought he was going to make change. She walked off as though nothing had happened. If General Grant’s beard was chafing against hers, she sure didn’t show it.

When the drinks came, Mad pulled out the celery stalk from hers and tossed it on the floor, shrilling, “Who the fuck ordered vegetables?” She took one sip, then play-complained, “Aw, I thought it was real blood.”

“They don’t serve that to minors here, either,” Artie told her. “You and I both know a place they do, though. What say we go there now?”

She nodded, eager as the child she was. She stood, then slipped her dress back on and wore it open like a robe, not even noticing the shortened hemline. The nearby audience of men stared in rude appreciation. One tableful caught her eye; she flashed them before leaving.

“C’mon along for the ride, Counselor,” Artie offered. “Live a little. You’re too shitfaced to drive anyway. Take you to a little out-of-the-way place you never been before.” I drained my drink in one gulp, got to my feet, pushed in Mad’s gory chair, and followed them up the main theater aisle. All eyes were on Mad as she led the way.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Three – The Wet Spot

 

Artie’s hearse lurked behind a semi parked in back. “The Angel a’ Death,” he remarked with pride, “cloaked with invisibility. A thousand cop cars all around, and here she sits unmolested, waiting for us.”

“Open the car door, I’m freezing my ass off out here,” Mad shuddered.

“Keep your pants on. Woops, too late.”

“Goddamn you, Artie, open the car door. I mean it.”

“Ooh, she means it.” Artie lounged against the fender of the gleaming hearse in the manufactured moonlight of the parking lot and dangled the keys at scrotum level, taunting her.

Madeleine doubled over, shivering. Artie said, “Okay, get in. But plug that leak. Counselor here’s got a sensitive side. Bleeding bitch like you riding shotgun, liable to spoil a few illusions for him. Right, Counselor?”

Artie opened the front passenger door and beckoned me in, formal as an undertaker. Mad slid in after me. From somewhere under the seat she produced an open box of tampons. She inserted one, as oblivious to the two of us as a Buddhist nun contemplating her navel. I could smell the butcher shop on her, the dried blood from her act. She reached in back, grabbed some jeans off one plush bench, and slipped them on.

“Fasten your seatbelt,” Artie ordered her. “I don’t want no tickets.” Mad drew the shoulder harness across herself. From where I sat, she looked like a topless crossing guard.

Artie drove like a demon over two-lane blacktops toward Belleville, passing slower-moving vehicles on hills and curves at speeds close to a hundred, heedless of oncoming headlights. At four-way intersections he slowed to sixty-five or seventy, passing through slugs of cross traffic like a ghost carriage. I felt a song coming on. To take my mind off the danger, I sang aloud in a country-and-western twang to the tune of Wabash Cannonball:

 

 

I cannot eat but little meat

my stomach is not good;

But still I think that I can drink

with him that wears a hood;

Back and side go bare, go bare

both foot and hand go cold;

Just let me keep my belly full

with good old Cuervo Gold.

 

 

“That’s pretty cool, Mr. Galeer,” Mad said. “Did you just write that, or what?”

She reached for Big Rick, but what she grabbed instead was the talisman swathed in black linen. She dragged her fingernails up and down it, then squeezed. I feared more hemorrhaging if she gripped too tightly, but before that could happen, Artie warned, “Hands off the gearshift! I’m the one doing the driving.”

I couldn’t tell you the route he took, only that the place he brought us to was a cinder block roadhouse—a Flying Dutchman kind of joint—out of town and down a hilly gravel lane so deeply rutted I thought Artie might lose an axle. We were miles from the nearest house and in no position to call a tow truck. I didn’t see all the cars clogging the parking lot until the hearse’s headlights shone on them when Artie swung in.

“Private club?” I asked.

“Boy howdy,” Artie replied.

We negotiated the parking lot by available moon- and starlight. I’d never before seen a tavern open for business with no outside lights, but once Artie flung open the front door we were met by a flood of dim lights and strange sounds. Cones of luminescence almost off either end of the visual spectrum swept across a dance floor the dimensions of an Olympic pool; it took up most of the huge oblong room. The narrow frontage belied the sheer size of the place, which, as they say, was hell-full with women. Artie and I were the only men in the place. Madeleine walking in topless drew an unseemly stir of interest from the ladies.

A curvilinear chrome bar ran the length of the building and along the back wall—a bar the shape of an immense scythe. The bartenders behind it were all women. A neon sign over the back bar spelled out The Wet Spot. I saddled up onto one of the few barstools still empty. The nearest bartender kept her back to me—slicing limes and giving me the cold shoulder.

“Yo,” I called out. No visible response. I noticed there were no mirrors at all in the club. So I asked her about it.

“What is this, Dracula’s place?”

“More like his daughter’s,” came her familiar voice. “What brings you here, Ricky?” She turned to me, wearing clear plastic gloves and holding a serrated knife longer than the one in my pants.

“Liz!”

“You seem surprised.”

“You’re full of surprises lately.”

She put the knife down and swept the lime slices into a container. “I like getting up close to the girls who actually drink the stuff. You’d be amazed what some of them are down for after a few drinks to loosen up. So what can I offer you?”

“How about a double Chivas?”

“Sorry, Ricky, this joint has no liquor license. Management prefers to stay under the county’s radar. What would you say to a club soda? A Donald Duck, maybe?”

“I feel more like a dead duck. Diane’s probably going to leave me.”

She reached over and, with a sympathetic expression, patted my hand. “Club soda it is, then,” she said and iced up a tall tumbler. “On the house.”

“Don’t suppose I could convince you to stick a scotch in there?”

“No can do, Ricky.” She swabbed the bar with a rag. “So what brought this on? This thing with you and Diane, I mean?”

“All right, so maybe I’m not the ideal husband. Up until a few days ago, I was doing okay. Kind of.” I sipped the club soda. It did clear my palate. “Everything was going along fine until Diane put on that amulet.”

Liz stopped wiping the bar. “What amulet?”

“You know: that man, woman, birth, death, infinity thing. After Sandra tore it off herself and threw it in the cat’s water dish, Diane must have found it and tried it on. Since then it’s been like PMS from hell, I can tell you.”

“Remember I warned you to get rid of that thing?”

“I remember. Guess it’s too late now, though.”

“Not yet. But it soon will be—the Lilith Sabbat is the end of this month. You’d better find her and yank that thing off her, unless you want her becoming one of them.”“I had to get the hell out of the house tonight. She’s probably packed up and gone by now, judging by how mad she was when I got home.”

“Where would she go?”

I thought about it. “No doubt where she thought she could hurt me the most, give me the meanest payback. The most bang for the fuck.”

“Where’s that?”

“John Diaz’s house.” I hadn’t realized it until I’d said it out loud, but it was probably true. The moment I spoke his name I saw Liz’s glabella knit, that drawstring tension under the third eye that heralds every falsehood.

“I don’t think she’d go there,” Liz said, nodding her head as though lost in thought. “I mean, why would she go there? He’s already dating that other one, Janis.”

Madeleine, throwing one leg over the adjoining bar stool, interrupted. “Hey, Liz, get him to sing that song again. You know, Mr. Galeer, that hillbilly song you were doing for us in the car.” She was still topless, with a girls’ locker room casualness about her.

I was about to ask how they knew each other when Liz murmured, “Hi, babe,” and cradled Madeleine’s hand in hers. She stroked Mad’s fingertips, gazing into her eyes. If Madeleine’s were the hands of a murderess, Liz obviously didn’t believe it. The two took a trip to the powder room together.

Artie sat down on the other side of me, helped himself to a sip of my drink, and did an exaggerated spit-take. “What the fuck is that?”

“Club soda.”

“Here,” he said, switching his drink for mine. “You need this more than I do.” I recognized it by the taste: straight tequila.

“There’s some a’ that Cuervo Gold you been singin’ about,” he said, waggling a bottle he had hidden under his coat. “Go on, drink up before Lucretia Borgia comes back.”

Artie watched me drink, seeming to derive second-hand enjoyment out of it. I thought maybe I should try drinking vicariously. It seemed to work for Liz.

When Liz finally returned the first thing she noticed was the near-empty margarita glass in front of me. “Ricky, what am I going do with you? And you,” she went on, turning to Artie, “you’re the best incentive for a No Men Allowed policy I can think of.”

“Don’t get your jockstrap in a Windsor knot,” he said. “I’ll be happy to leave. Only thing is, she leaves with me.”

I caught Liz staring at Madeleine, looking downcast returning from the ladies’ room with a fresh suck mark on each of her breasts.

“Uh-huh,” Artie said. “I thought so. Anyway, how lucid you want him once the show starts?”

I felt free as a bird. I needed to say something. “How come you’re talking about me in the first permanent…the pirst firmanent…” An impotent rage filled me; I couldn’t spit out the words.

“Talk much?” Artie jeered, winking at Liz.

Madeleine chimed in. “Yeah, who taught you to talk?”

Something like the sound of a pleasant buzzer filled my senses. I thought if I were to strip down and prance around naked, I could swing all the women in the room over to hetero. I wanted to bang Liz three ways. I tried to tell her so, thinking she’d regard it as a compliment, but it all came out in sleep-talk mumblings.

I heard Artie say, “Kinda hard to function behind all that Easy Lay, ain’t it, Counselor?” But I was still staring at Liz and couldn’t figure out where his voice was coming from.

The rest of the night shattered into strobe-glimpses of memory for me. Somebody killed the lights and music on a prearranged signal, leaving only the eerie headlamp glare of the emergency lights. What followed seemed a macabre shadow play. The scent of rubbing alcohol-swabbed bodies doing a glinting saber-dance of scalpels, lancets, phlebotomes, and syringes. A clear glass vessel, its mouth lovingly cupped over a fresh wound with a Bic lighter held at the other end, filling up with blood like a brandy snifter. Madeleine full in her courses, reclining on the bar, her feet in the chrome arches of the waitress station as in stirrups, offering herself up to a procession of women. Misuse of a breast pump someone had thought to bring to the party.

And Artie in the center of it, watching it all. Always Artie, laughing, gleeful—a latter-day Steve Rubell of the blood clubs. I sat beside him, the only other male in the place, as though for mutual protection against the sanguinary excesses going on all around us.

“I’m only gonna tell you this because confession is good for the soul,” he said to me. “Plus you’re so fucked up on Easy Lay, you won’t remember nothin’, anyway.” He expertly prepared a hypodermic needle. I thought at first he would be taking part in the blood-soaked festivities, but he took out a glassine envelope, did something with a spoon I couldn’t quite follow, then injected himself with the concoction. His eyes caught the glare of the lights; his neck cords tuned tighter.

“That little explosion in the trailer park? That was a stiff named Pete Weegers with my ID on him they found, also a little bitch that was cranking up to testify against me at my trial. We did a little impromptu makeover—pierced her face just like Mad’s and hung all Mad’s jewelry on her. She didn’t like it much. We had to load her up with the same cocktail I’m giving you.”

Liz caught sight of Artie shooting up. She pulled herself away from a three-way blood draw and came over mad, punctured, and half-dressed.

“How many times I have to tell you, no slamming in here? Especially tonight.” She jerked her head toward one busied covey of women. “We’re entertaining some of the ladies of law enforcement this evening.”

I stared in that direction. Squinting past the deliberately blinding headlights, I thought I recognized Bobbi Cox, her tongue lapping like a tabby cat’s to catch the bloody ooze from a female bailiff’s slit ankle pulse point. Was it possible she didn’t recognize Artie from his mug shot, the straggly shoulder-length hair and stringy Rasputin beard now swept away as easily as a Halloween wig and false whiskers?

“You’re only in here at all because you’re both prodigies,” Liz said. “Don’t abuse the privilege.” She took the syringe from Artie, dipped and rinsed it in and out of one of the rubbing alcohol bottles that ranged along the bar and on every table like Chablis candles, and remarked, “I can use this.” She returned to her companions.

“Whass progidy?” I asked Artie.

“Pro-di-gy,” Artie enunciated. “It’s what you have to thank for that big cod between your legs, Counselor. See, whenever one of the Lilith cult gets knocked up the old-fashioned way, and it’s a boy, he’s always hung with a dong like King Kong. You, me, we’re all cut from the same cloth. A prodigy is a demon child. Nothing personal.”

Maybe I passed out. The next thing I remember was riding along, lying in the back of the hearse. Must have been somebody’s idea of a joke. Seeing the revolving red lights reflected against the hearse’s interior and hearing what sounded like a familiar tap of the siren. Artie exclaiming, “Oh, fuck me.”

Familiar crunch of heavy shoes, in no hurry on gravel shoulder. Four ominous taps of nightstick on window, to the rhythm of Beethoven’s Fifth. Diaz’s voice asking, “Where’s the fire?”

“We’re fireproof,” Artie said.

“That ain’t what I heard.”

“Just takin’ a sick friend home, ossifer,” Artie said.

“You stupid fuck,” Diaz said. “You can’t even play dead worth a shit. Where’s the talisman?”

“Mad’s got it stashed up her twat. Wanna fish it out?”

I heard, by way of an answer, the battering-ram crack of Diaz’s nightstick slamming into Artie’s face. I guessed Diaz had hit a bull’s-eye right in his philtrum. Artie seemed to heave a sigh, then the sound of the horn split the quiet night as Artie lolled against the wheel.

“I don’t have it,” Madeleine whimpered, suddenly terrified. “I thought Artie took it with us when we left the club after I danced.”

Someone shoved Artie off the horn. I found the quiet rather refreshing. “After you danced? You wacked-out slut, you’re supposed to be dead. Where the fuck did you dance? And where’s that talisman?” Diaz slapped her hard across the face, twice. The sounds of slaps and a woman’s screams brought back fond memories of my childhood.

I struggled to speak—to cry out the news that all was well, that I had the talisman safely ensconced in my pants—but the words wouldn’t come. I drifted back to sleep. When I groggily awoke again, Diaz must have been driving the hearse.

We were turning, driving on gravel, turning again. Lights brighter and more colorful than streetlamps told me we were back at the Sphincter Club. Diaz brought the hearse to a sliding stop, sprang out, and slammed the driver’s door loud enough to wake the dead. I heard the passenger door fly open and Madeleine’s weak protests as he jerked her out and started dragging her toward the front entrance.

“Get your ass in there,” he snarled. “You’re gonna show me exactly what table you were sitting at, crawl on your hands and knees if you have to until you find me that fucking dagger.”

I listened to their retreating footsteps, then waited a full minute more. Artie moaned like the ghost of Hamlet’s father with hemorrhoids. I knew I couldn’t talk, but when I was much younger I’d learned to walk a full year before I’d managed to pick up on the talking. How much harder could it be to drive?

I sat up in the hearse and felt the shock of my life’s first hangover all over again. I peeked in on Artie, still slumped over in the front seat. He looked like somebody’d tried hiding an Easter egg under his upper lip.

I managed to open the rear hatch and pour myself out onto the parking lot. When I stood and tried to reel my way back to my car, I felt like the first astronaut on Jupiter.

“Jew-peter,” I said to myself, trying to talk and walk at the same time. “Sat-in-urine. Your anus.”

A trucker climbing down from his cab called out, “Better sober up, friend.”

Sound advice. Doctor, what should I take for my condition? Why, take advice, to be sure. Had I said it out loud? I glanced back at the trucker. He was already heading into the club.

My car wouldn’t go forward. And yet the emergency brake was off. Then I realized my car’s front end was wedged against some other gentleman’s bumper. So sorry for the inconvenience, but I really can’t stay. I lowered the driver’s side window for a little air, backed up like it was the first day of driver’s ed, then dropped the shifter into drive and off I went, easy as that.

Back to town, back to town. I got lost heading down the wrong moonlit ribbon of blacktop and finally had to turn around in a farm lane. The damn lane was so narrow, with a steep ditch on either side, that I drove a quarter mile before reaching the farmstead. I tried a full-circle turn in the farmyard, striking up against the wood frame supporting an elevated diesel tank someone had carelessly left there. Drat! Have to do that backing-up trick again. I’d nearly made it back to the blacktop when I heard a loud report coming from the direction of the farmhouse and sounding suspiciously like someone discharging a firearm. A load of buckshot rained against the roof and trunk of my car. Maybe I could report it to my insurance carrier as hail damage.

Now that I’d reached the end of the farm lane, I couldn’t remember which way to turn. Panicking, I turned left and pressed the accelerator to the floor. The steering seemed sluggish to respond when I tried to make the curves, and I kept having to correct the oversteer. Must get that looked at by a professional mechanic if I ever made it home alive. I knew I was running from someone or something, but who or what it was had momentarily slipped my mind. Oh, bother!

I passed the Sphinx Lounge. Thought about going in for a highball, but couldn’t slow down in time to make the driveway and turning around again was too intimidating to coordinate. At least I was finally going the right direction.

An asshole in a damn black station wagon, motoring along dangerously close in front of me at less than half my speed. I tapped my horn to warn him of my presence, but he wouldn’t pull over. His arrogance offended me; I tapped again. No response. I began tapping the horn in rhythm to Jingle Bells. I had just gotten to Oh, what fun it is to ride when the angry red Mars light flashed on in the car ahead.

For the first time that evening, I thought of my license. Not that one—my license to practice law. I pulled over onto a weed-grown concrete industrial site littered with glass. A familiar flashlight-toting silhouette approached me from the hearse. I was almost relieved to see Diaz. That relief turned to fear when he dragged me, keys still in hand, from my car with a take-down force I hadn’t felt since high school wrestling, twisted my arm up to shoulder-blade level, and threw me into the hearse, saying “Watch your head, peckerhead.”

He unplugged the Mars light cord from the cigarette lighter. I rode beside him in silence back to Belleville. Artie and Mad had disappeared. When I asked about them, he replied, “Who?” Certain I would be breath-tested, blood-tested, photographed, videotaped, fingerprinted, and arrested for DUI as soon as we reached the jail, I kept my mouth shut after that.

Close to Fifth and F Streets, Diaz parked on the street. “Come on in,” he said. “You’ve never been to our house before, have you? Ellen’s and mine.”

It was a funky old house on a full-size lot in a quiet neighborhood. All the trees had been cut; the lot looked like shaved pubes. We walked up steep concrete steps. The screened-in porch door screeched and banged behind us. Diaz unlocked the heavy front door and pushed it open. It dragged on the sill. Somehow the place didn’t smell lived-in anymore. It had probably become just a place for him to crash. In the darkness, I had the impression of facing a dusty, unused sitting room.

“Go downstairs to your right,” he said. “Flip the light switch first, there on the far wall. Wet bar in the basement. Help yourself.”

He didn’t have to ask me twice. Given the events of the evening, any wet bar was a welcome oasis. The finished staircase creaked as I went down. Diaz didn’t follow me right away. When I reached the bottom, I patted a paneled wall around a corner like a blind man until I found a second switch. Bar signs, black lights, and retro lava lamps came alive, making the place look like it had been decorated from Spencer’s at the mall. But it was enough light for me to find the bar and pour myself a post-glasnost quantity of Stoly over rocks.

I sat at one of the three bar stools and looked the room over. Cheap paneling peeling off here and there from a frame built to hide stone walls. The place must have flooded now and then, like most basements in Belleville. Smelled like it, too. A fold-out bed, open and unmade. A card table with a laundry basket on top of it and no chairs. A tile floor, also peeling badly. Several tiles had lifted up completely from the adhesive. The place couldn’t stand much light. No windows at all—either the old basement didn’t have any originally or the paneling hid them.

I turned away from the claustrophobic ugliness of the room and faced the bar. There were two fully stocked glass shelves of premium liquor, as wide a selection as any cocktail bar. And on the top shelf, a row of four apothecary jars matching those I’d seen in Liz’s shop. Did they contain cocktail onions? Maraschino cherries? Pickled boiled eggs? Curious, I stood and walked behind the bar to get a better look.

A pair of hands in each of the first three jars. Feminine hands, partially clenched as though bound with cords, amputated at the wrists. In the fourth a man’s penis and testicles.

Behind me, Diaz’s voice inquired calmly, “Like my collection?”

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Four – The Sound of One Hand Slapping

 

Somehow I knew he’d be carrying. Sure enough, when I spun around, his service revolver pointed at the level of my glabella. The menace was there, but something else, too: pride. The pride of a big game hunter showing the infrequent guest around his trophy room.

“Why?” I asked him.

He shrugged. Even that gesture frightened me. Suddenly I feared his uncertainty more than his resolve. In shirtsleeves and a shoulder holster, he looked militaristic and terrifying. For a split-second, I flashed on the idea that I’d be executed by pistol shot in a basement like Tsar Nicholas and family. The Russian Church Abroad considered them saints. I wouldn’t achieve the same distinction.

He must have seen my eyes dart behind the bar, looking frantically for a second weapon. “Hands on the bar,” he ordered, tired and without emotion. “Keep ‘em there. Now move around and sit down—you’re a guest, after all.”

I resumed my seat behind my drink. He sat down, one stool between us, and laid his snub-nosed Colt Python on the bar. Within his easy reach. Caught me eyeing it.

“Don’t even think about it, Counselor. You’d be dead before you hit the floor.” He gestured to something I hadn’t yet noticed in the dim lighting: target-range paper silhouettes hung on the far wall, their kill-zones tattered with singed bullet holes.

“I qualify every thirty days with this thing,” he said. “Now finish your drink and relax. What were you asking again? Oh, yeah. Why the collection. You might say it serves a utilitarian purpose.”

“What’s that?”

Diaz reholstered his weapon, passed behind the opposite end of the bar, and retrieved the first jar on the left. He placed it carefully on the bar and removed the lid by its glass knob. The smell of formalin solution quickly overpowered the Stoly fumes. He rolled up one long-cut sleeve, reached into the jar, and lifted out one severed hand, its fingernails still blood-red, although the flesh had darkened to burgundy leather.

“Carla,” he said. He crossed to the fold-out bed, sat down, reached under and found a jar of petroleum jelly, then began working the Vaseline into the palm of the dead hand through the crook between thumb and forefinger, as though curing and lubricating a baseball glove. The fingers remained stiffly curled against the thumb, poised as if to grip a broomstick.

Diaz set the hand aside, half-stood to drop his pants and boxer shorts, then sat back down on the bed, semi-erect with his legs spread. Still watching me, he positioned Carla’s hand, lining himself up with the cylinder her thumb and four fingers made. His breaths came deeper from the diaphragm.

“There’s her other hand.” He pointed toward the jar. “Give her a try. Carla won’t mind. Hell, she’s always ready for action.”

I sat and stared at him, too disgusted to move. I’d never been invited to a necrophile circle jerk before. In the near-darkness, Diaz moved the desiccated hand up and down, faster and faster, building to a climax. It looked like a raccoon’s foot or a monkey’s paw, so dwarfed by his inhuman member. I didn’t look away until I heard his breath catch and saw the first tallow candle drops trailing down over rigor mortis fingers. I crystal-gazed into my drink and tried not to hear the drag of one, two, three Kleenex from the box, then fastidious wiping of flesh living and dead. From behind me, men’s restroom sounds of Diaz hiking up his pants, closing his zipper, and fastening his belt.

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” he said, plopping Carla’s disembodied hand back into the jar, where it settled to join its mate—two dead fish in an aquarium. I thought I felt an aerosol drop of formalin splash up against my lip and evaporate instantly. He replaced the lid, slid the jar back on its shelf, then sat down facing me again.

“When I was in ‘Nam,” he began with a faraway look in his eye, “some of us grunts got to like taking trophies, you know? I’m talking buddies of mine, too. Regular home-town guys. Joe High School. Myself, I never much went in for that at the time, but it always stuck in my mind. It was nothing to see a guy out on patrol, some dead whore’s hands dangling from his belt where you’d carry a rabbit’s foot when we were kids, the hands jerking with every step he takes like they was still alive.” He tilted his head and surveyed the jars. “Something about the hands,” he said. “The opposable thumbs. Essence of humanity right there.”

I swallowed what was left of my drink with a shudder, reached for the bottle, and poured enough for a long story. It was his bottle and his gun.

“When I showed up at the Salome Spa twenty years ago, the night after I busted Janis for pross, truth be told I was lookin’ to get a little, know what I mean? It was right after Ellen had lost the baby, so she wasn’t letting me even touch her. What can I say? You know how it is. I was all of twenty-seven years old at the time. It had been a problem pregnancy, and my blue balls had been dragging on the carpet so long they were getting a rug burn. See, I figured Janis would be down for anything.” He looked at the brass rail and shook his head. “Man, I didn’t know how right I was.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I walked in on her just as she was reactivating the knife on Carla. The way I understand it, they have to kill one of their own with that talisman every twenty years or so. The thing is, the whole scene turned me on so much I got a hard on from watching. I figured, Vietnam, United States, same thing—an accident of geography. Carla was already dead anyway. Might as well take a couple trophies of my own, even if it is a few years late. Janis was in no position to object. Matter of fact, I think the sick bitch even got off on it. Came up with a few tricks I never even thought of, no pun intended.”

“Such as?”

“That gag with the holy card, for one thing. Seemed like a great red herring at the time. Funny thing was, it turned out I was the one who got assigned to the homicide. The holy card was all her idea, after she found out how I was willing to switch her prints from the night of the vice bust with Carla’s.”

He stroked his chin. “I’d given her a lot of breaks during the booking process. She was a real cutie, then and now. I remember she seemed real scared I was going to make her take off that necklace she always wears. So I went ahead and let her keep that, even ROR’d her rather than throw her in a holding cell with all the dykes. Then, after the murder, I was so hot for her I went one step further and switched her prints with Carla’s before filing the pross case, to save her reputation. I guess she kind of liked the idea of walking around wearing a dead woman’s fingerprints.”

“So how’d Janis let the talisman get away?”

“Well, after we set up the crime scene, Janis and I, she could tell I really needed to get off. Helped me rinse the blood off, then did me right there in the shower room. My first and only time with her or anybody else outside of marriage, I swear.” Surprised by the emotion breaking in his voice, I searched his face for sarcasm, but it was no put-on, only his Catholic guilt over a twenty-year-old infidelity coming to the fore.

“When we came back, the dagger was gone, with Janis’s bloody fingerprints all over it. So see, that’s when I had to switch Carla’s prints with hers. Then later when I’m investigating the case I find out that little bald-headed quacker’s got the whole thing on videotape, shot through one-way glass on a timer. Turns out he’s a video peeping tom. Now I’m not only hers by the balls, I’m his, too. I’ve been working for him ever since, doing little jobs.”

“Like Gwendace Fox? Liz always suspected Kokker of that one.”

He grinned, eyes wide, and held it there. I said, “What’s the matter?”

“Funny you should mention her name in that context, is all,” he said. “It was Liz Hare who commissioned that little masterpiece herself.”

“Liz? I don’t believe it. She loved Gwendace. They wanted to have a child together.”

“Liz wanted to have a child together, but Gwendace would have been the one to carry it, the way they reproduce, and Gwendace wasn’t having any.”

“What do you mean, the way they reproduce?”

Diaz’s big head bobbed in my face like a Thanksgiving Day parade balloon. “You mean you don’t even know that? You’ve been married to one of them for, what, fourteen years? They get all turned on, see, and about the time they get wet, the middle finger of their right hand starts to grow like magic, almost like a bamboo shoot in one of those stop-action nature films. Then when it’s fully-grown she uses it to snake up into her girlfriend’s plumbing and snatch her egg, then implants the egg in herself where one of her own eggs plays role-reversal and acts like a sperm. Voila! Not exactly an immaculate conception, but it’s done the job for them over thousands of years. It’s true what they say: for every holy passion there’s an unholy passion.” Diaz crossed himself. “Only Gwendace didn’t want to play mommy.”

“Why’d you mention the immaculate conception just now, John? You adding blasphemy to your other sins?”

“I read somewhere that for every holy thing, the devil sets up an unholy counterfeit. Maybe that’s what this Lilith cult is all about, the reproducing without men, I mean. I don’t know, I never studied theology. And that’s funny, that last thing you said. You gettin’ up on your high horse, talkin’ to me about sins, with two murders under your belt.”

“Two murders?”

He gestured to the last two jars on the shelf. “There’s a rubber with your name on it between Cheryl’s fun bags we fished out of a dumpster, and a quantity of gentleman’s goo in the late Juno’s mouth that matches your DNA, thanks to a q-tip and my own nimble fingers. Looks like you got some ‘splaining to do, Counselor. Bobbi Cox’ll make State’s Attorney hag-riding a lawyer like you all the way to death row. I can hear the campaign slogan already: Pull your Peterson out and stick Cox in. Hell, with all the jury appeal you bring to the party, they’ll resurrect the hot seat for you.”

“What makes you think the DNA’s mine?”

“Janis helped me fill in the details. I’m not the first detective to ever get help from a psychic.”

“What else does Janis do for you?”

“What, you jealous? Yeah, I’m fuckin’ her too. She does that Missourah hoodoo thing where she brings back Ellen. Not imitates her—really brings her back. You know how I said Janis could help me forget Ellen being sick? Well, she does that by helping me remember Ellen when she was still well.”

“Why’d you kill Juno?”

“Because he took it out and showed it to me. A man in my position, he’s gotta command the respect of his peers. Juno jeopardized all that when he got over on me that night at the Sphincter Club. And, as you can plainly see, he don’t have the balls to do that again.”

“Why Cheryl?”

“The bitch pissed in my car.” He took up the gun. It hefted as easily in his hand as a socket wrench in a mechanic’s.

“Drink up. We’re goin clubhoppin’ among the clodhoppers.”

Before we headed out again in the hearse, he handcuffed my right wrist to the frame of the shotgun seat. He kept his left hand low on the wheel, resting in his lap. With his other hand he trained the gun on me, about where the wheelchair pad would eventually rest against my lower back if he happened to fire.

I have a tendency to blubber when my life’s at stake. “Don’t frame me, John. Don’t do this. I’ll never tell anybody your secret if you’ll never tell mine. It’ll be kind of a Mexican stand-off.”

His gun didn’t move a millimeter. “My family’s Cuban,” was all he said.

“But why are you doing this? I thought we were friends. What can you possibly have against me?”

“You fucked my girlfriend,” he replied. “And once you’re out of the way, maybe your wife’ll wanna be my other girlfriend.”

“John, I’m begging you. Don’t turn me in.”

“Okay, I won’t.”

“You mean it?”

“Yeah, I mean it. I got a better idea. Once we get to the Sphincter Club, I’ll amputate your cock and balls and leave you to bleed to death in the hearse. It solves a lot more problems. Hell, without too much effort I can probably rig it to look like Ramses’ work. You’re in debt up to your ass anyway. Maybe you used him for a loan shark and then stiffed him on the payments. I’ll get a promotion if I can nail a force of nature like Ramses.”

We were out of town, hurtling along at ambulance speed on the familiar route to the Sphincter Club, when he spotted the outline of the talisman.

“What’s that giant killer you got in your pants there?” he asked. “Wouldn’t be a dagger, by any chance, now would it?”

My mind raced. With my left hand could I get the knife out in time to cut him and escape? I struggled to plunge my hand behind my belt. Found the hilt of the dagger. Pulled. It hung up on my clothing. Pulled again, harder this time. The wad of cloth gave way. I raised the dagger over my head. Saw the flash of the blade. Cut the air wildly, searching for Diaz’s gun hand. Cringing for the shot when I missed, then missed again. Playing mongoose to my cobra, he swerved all over the road, throwing us both around inside the hearse. My right shoulder jammed up against the door, sending a white-hot shiver of pain through me, but still I went for him with the knife.

Letting go of the wheel but not the revolver, he lunged at me and did some scissoring point-counterpoint trick with his forearms against my wrist. A split-second later my grip sprang open. The dagger flew end-over-end and landed on the floor between his feet where I couldn’t reach it.

The action seemed to have invigorated him. All cops are adrenaline junkies.

“Anybody for a little game of mumbledy-peg?” he called out cheerfully, steadying the wheel with his shooting hand, reaching over with the other to pop his seat belt so he could lean down and grab the knife. A moment later he was cradling it in his wheel hand as he drove, the gun again pointed in my direction.

“You know what?” he said. “With this doo-dah in my possession I got the whole world by the tit. Janis wants it; so does Kokker. Both of them’ll do anything to get it, too. That puts me right in the middle of a bidding war, don’t it?”

We rode in silence. I thought I recognized the outline of an abandoned grain elevator. We were probably within a mile of the club by now.

“This knife’ll come in handy, too,” he gloated. “I can use it to chop your nuts off in the parking lot, then leave ‘em on the front seat of Ramses’ Cad. Advancement in rank sure to follow. Maybe they’ll even ask me to do the eulogy.” He affected a tremolo falsetto. “Ricky Galeer was not only a fine attorney, he was also…my friend.”

The falsetto turned into a scream. At first I thought it was part of the act. Then I caught sight of the black snake nestled between Diaz’s thighs, its head poised as if to strike. Samael, awakened from reptilian slumber, trying to cozy up and make friends.

It looked to me like Diaz was trying to climb back over the driver’s seat to where the guest of honor rides. The wheel spun free. With an earsplitting squeal of careening tires, the hearse headed for the shoulder and down a steep ditch where it slammed into a concrete culvert.

No air bags in this baby. Diaz’s head flew into the windshield and cracked it, leaving a lovely snowflake pattern that was probably unique in all the world, then thumped the dashboard. The divot in his forehead made him seem kind of peaceful reclining there. His stentorous breathing reverberated through his bloodied nose. It looked like Diaz would be taking a long winter’s nap.

I fumbled on his belt for the handcuff keys, found them, and released my right wrist. The dagger had slipped under the driver’s seat. I fished the wad of black linen from my pant leg, carefully re-wrapped the dagger, and jammed it in my pocket this time, switching my wallet to my back pocket to make room. Then I had another thought. Slipping my hand into Diaz’s pocket—waiting for the bell to ring on him like some Fagin’s mannequin—I retrieved his wallet and badge, throwing the money on the seat next to him. Then did what I should have done first: easily loosened his grip on the revolver, jacked the bullets out of the cylinder, and scattered the ammo on the ground. I threw the empty weapon as far as I could into a frozen cornfield. The hissing sound coming from the hearse’s radiator told me Diaz wasn’t going anywhere without a tow truck. The front end was smashed up worse than most of our injury clients’ vehicles.

At last I knew—all those people had been faking when they kept telling me their necks hurt after an accident. Or maybe it was the pharmacopeia dissolved in my ninety-proof bloodstream that had protected me like a Saint Christopher’s medal and was now easing the pain. I set out on foot for the lot where I’d left my car after Diaz had pulled me over. From there I drove to the Sphinx Lounge and used the pay phone outside. There were some hot numbers carved into the wall; I ignored them and called 911 instead.

“You’ve got some outstanding felony warrants on a guy named Arthur Tremayne Jr.,” I said. “If you hurry you can find him passed out in a black hearse that wrecked in a ditch about a mile south of the Sphinx Lounge, along that county road that runs by there.”

Before I made it back to town, two northbound cruisers screamed past, red emergency lights sweeping the night. Good citizen that I am, I obligingly pulled off onto the shoulder. Anything for law enforcement.

I stopped my car at a Belleville convenience store pay phone, called 911 again, and asked the operator an anonymous riddle: “What has eight hands but only two pricks?” Before she could hang up, I told her, “John Diaz.” I spelled it for her, gave her his home address, then added, “Better get an ambulance over there quick. He’s lying behind the wet bar in his basement, stabbed and bleeding to death. If they break the door down, maybe they can still save him.”

I could only hope that Belleville’s finest would respond to the ambulance call and that they wouldn’t miss the jars of evidence in plain sight above the bar. The case would stall forever in court while lawyers argued about probable cause, anonymous tipsters, and exigent circumstances, but at least Diaz wouldn’t be doing any more killing for a while.

What to expect at home? Peripatetic cross-examination or livid silence intense enough to fill the hair and the nerve with static electricity? Maybe I was making too much of Diane’s outburst—when she was in her courses she had a temper, but her periods usually came in like a lion and went out like a lamb. Perhaps it was only that time of the month. Either way, I was ready for a deadly homecoming.

The dagger. Was it in such demand because of the strange powers it held, or merely for what everybody seemed to believe about it? Did it really work miracles, or had Mad used it as a cheap stage prop, palming a squib or two of vampire blood for the big finish? The lights were bad enough in that club for her to have pulled it off. And what about Diane? I’d always feared the day her psychic powers would kick in and betray my infidelities, Sisterhood or no Sisterhood. Somehow Diaz held the key to it all in his twisted mind. Would the killings finally end with his arrest?

My car cornered badly, then pulled to the right. Even though it was a busy thoroughfare, I parked and got out to check. Right front flat, probably from the broken glass. I popped the trunk. It had been twenty years since I’d last changed a tire, but the Triple A card had run out and it was too late to call anyone.

I spun the big wing nut free and heisted out the spare. A red gift bag fell out of the well behind it. I’d forgotten all about Sandra’s present; it was still right where I had left it. A VHS tape labeled Diane Pulls the Train and another, smaller tape—Betamax, probably—marked only Salome Spa: February 5, 1988. Without touching either one, I placed the bag with both tapes in the front seat before I set about changing the flat.

Hot, dry spittle still crackled in the hollow under my Adam’s apple. The stinging heat of Diane’s slap across my face still burned my cheek. My Diane’s name captured in that leering title taunted me until I broke down and sobbed. I couldn’t even see the lug nuts through my tears. Cars whizzed by like bullets, stinging me with road grit. Finally, out of necessity and reflex, I managed to put on the undersized spare and eased warily back home.

The van was gone. Sandra’s car sat parked in its space. I carried the gift bag into the house. It was after midnight. The big cathartic argument with Diane I had both feared and relished was not to be—at least not yet. Maybe she wanted me sober for it. Maybe she didn’t want me at all.

I pulled the pocket doors to the family room half-closed and slipped Diane Pulls the Train into the VCR. Thank God it still worked. Couldn’t afford the fifty bucks for another one. Even the rushing hiss of white noise seemed to usher in a chorus of Elizabethan voices calling me a cuckold. The clock cuckooed once for twelve-thirty.

I rewound the tape. Someone had already watched it or a copy of it. Maybe the overflow crowd at one of Kokker’s orgies, half-bored and half-entertained by Diane’s clapping a prize set of horns on my head. The cheap, dirty thrill of degrading something pure was what they all wanted. The tape clicked and buzzed. Rewind complete. The random numbers on the counter read 666. I reset it to zero. Pressed play, though I didn’t feel like playing.

Her hair was done up with the aigrette. It had to be the night of our dinner at Kokker’s. The sound was lower than on a commercial tape. I turned it up just as Kokker’s bleating voice said, “Relax the muscles of your neck.” He stepped behind her where she reclined on some kind of contoured bench and wrapped the crook of his elbow around her throat. He leaned forward for a better angle and tightened his grip, pressing the heel of his other hand against her temple. With a sickening crunch, he jerked and twisted her head ninety degrees. Her body sagged, and her head lolled when he released her.

Kokker stripped away the hospital gown Diane had on. He tweaked her nipples, mugging and playing to the camera. The hand-held camera focused on the unconscious Diane. Suddenly others were in the room: early comers to Kokker’s festivities. I hadn’t even suspected their presence in the house.

“She’s out,” Kokker assured them in a normal voice level. “We’ve at least twenty minutes.” Primal rage welled up in me, even as I realized that at that very moment, Sandra and I must have been getting it on, conceiving a child in the rathskeller.

None of the men wasted any more of that twenty-minute window than necessary getting naked. They were like boys in summertime eagerly stripping down for the ole swimmin’ hole.

Kokker, wearing some kind of horned Viking helmet, waved to the camera with one hand while he worked himself erect with the other, announcing to nervous laughter, “Look at me. I’m about to get my ashes hauled with Ricky Galeer’s wife, and it’s not even Ash Wednesday.”

The camera’s prurient eye panned back and forth to distraction, trying to capture all the action both stem and stern. Two other men stood by, impatiently urging State’s Attorney Peterson to hurry. The camera struggled to take it all in, catching the face of one of the waiting men. I recognized him: Coroner Lester Ruggles. A moment later, the camera lurched to record him prematurely popping. I heard his voice saying, “Oh, no! Oh, shit!”

Someone said, “They gotta be really dead for you to hold out any longer than that, Les? Not just unconscious?” to general male laughter.

Ruggles ruefully smeared his wad all over Diane’s breasts. It glistened there like Vaseline. “We never been properly introduced,” he said.

Not to be outdone, Kokker introduced himself in true porno interruptus style. I thought of her thanking him for the treatment later.

Peterson held on next to the longest, but soon his ample load adorned Diane’s neck right about where her sputum had clung to mine. He obligingly left her mouth hanging open for the next gentleman. Her body lying so still while they changed positions, her gaping mouth, the clinical surroundings—it all resembled some kind of alien autopsy.

Even with his massive semi-erect penis in my wife’s mouth, the last man needed to give himself a little extra help. He managed to get off after applying a few rodent-quick hand strokes of his own. The camera slowly angled upward to get a peek at his face. It was Diaz, eyes closed. His eyelids popped open and he raised a hand to shield his eyes from the glare of the white light. Turning away with a shy smile he said, “Get that fuckin’ thing off me. I got a reputation to maintain, not like you assholes.”

Diane moaned. Someone warned, “She’s comin’ around.” The shoemaker’s elves put away their tools, gathered up their clothes, and stole away, leaving only Kokker and Hephzibah, silent zombie camerawoman, to clean up the mess. Kokker took over camera duty while Hephzibah sponge-bathed the evidence from Diane’s skin and nether hair.

Oblivious to everything except the action on the tape, I hadn’t noticed Sandra standing behind me. She stroked the guard hairs of my neck, saying, “Throws a hell of a party, doesn’t he?”

The clock cuckooed one.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Five – The Kokker Maneuver

 

“Those demons—the ones that attack you when you’re asleep,” she went on. “What do you call them?”

“Incubi?”

“That’s it. Incubi. They say to overpower a demon, you first have to get it to tell you its name. I mean, how’re you going to do that if you’re asleep?”

“I know all their names,” I said.

“God, I’ll say you do.” She circled around the couch and sat down beside me, her attitude demure. “Kirk’s an asshole. I feel like I oughta apologize to you or something. I can’t believe I was ever part of that scene, you know? It all just seems so…cold and impersonal. Like a bad dream I’ve had over and over.”

“You’ve seen this kind of thing happen before?”

“Oh, honey bunny,” she said, “more times than I care to remember.”

“Did he drug her? Is that how it works?”

“No. He puts the Kokker maneuver on them. That’s what you saw him doing with his hands, like he’s breaking loose a stuck jar lid, only it’s her head, you know?” She assumed a dour Alfred Hitchcock parody. “When skillfully administered, inducing profound and prolonged vasovagal syncope.” She drew out the final E sound in a death-rattle groan. “He claims it’s his own invention, but he really picked up the whole idea off that other tape I gave you. It’s something the Lilith cult has used for thousands of years to induce sudden unconsciousness in its victims, a kind of sleeper hold from hell. Kirk’s trying to figure out a way to license it and then sell the authorities on letting chiropractors use it to do surgery without an anesthetic. Creepy, huh?”

I’ll say it was. Janis had used it on me that first night in the office. That crackling flash of red, then time-out.

“Kirk calls it ‘giving him twenty minutes.’ Like for instance, he’ll say, ‘Give me twenty minutes, I’ll make a new woman out of you.’ Only when she wakes up, the new woman’s been had. It was one of Kirk’s favorite games.”

I gazed into her doe eyes. Her hair was down, her expression open yet unreadable. Her full breasts strained against Diane’s robe. Aunt Sandy. In Diane’s absence she had no doubt fed our children and tucked them in. Would she do the same for me now that we were alone? Heart pounding, I reached for her.

“How could you have stayed so long with a man who treated you so badly, Sandra?”

She let me embrace her for nearly a full minute, even rested her head on my shoulder. But when my wayward index finger wormed its way inside the lapel of my wife’s robe and found new purchase there, she sighed and shimmied away, whispering only, “I can’t.”

My reptile brain took over. I had to have the feel of her against me again, the cool firmness of her skin, her gamy esters when I lost all reserve and went down on her, my shuddering ecstasy all come inside of her. With a lizard’s forked tongue I spoke these words: “You and I could go a long way on a million dollars, baby.”

She stood facing me, arms barricading her breasts against my threatened onslaught. “Excuse me?”

“I said—”

“I heard what you said. Where the hell are you going to get your hands on a million dollars? No offense.”

“None taken. I happen to be entertaining an intriguing offer. Through an intermediary, Kokker’s offered me that sum in untraceable—tax-free—cash, simply to divorce Diane, marry you, and get you out of his hair, apparently. A can’t-lose proposition for me, now that Diane’s already left.” I tried for a crooked worldly smile but literally choked on the last few words.

Sandra’s eyes welled up with tears. “That sweetheart,” she sobbed.

“Say what?”

“Don’t you see? It’s like the rube who puts up a No Peddlers sign—a red flag the guy’s got no sales resistance. Kirk can’t resist me if he’s willing to pay a million dollars to get rid of me. It’s a dead giveaway I must be worth over a million bucks to him. He’s telegraphing how much he loves me in spite of himself!” She ran to me and planted an exuberant, sisterly kiss on my cheek.

“Thank you,” she gushed. “I’m going to pack a few things. I’ll send Hephzibah for the rest later.” Within moments, her lingering lavender perfume was the only clue she had ever been in the room. I heard banging drawers and closet doors upstairs. She came clumping down with a single suitcase, gave me her trademark little-girl wave at the door, and was gone.

I decided Diane Pulls the Train wasn’t worth a second viewing, even though it seemed to be all I had left of my wife. After Sandra’s car peeled away heading west, I dragged upstairs. I checked on the kids: all four sleeping soundly. What story had Sandra told them to account for their mother’s absence? How would I care for them now? Maintain two separate residences when I couldn’t afford even the one?

These thoughts haunted me when I tried to sleep after picking up and draping my pants over the rocking chair. I had nearly given up on sleep when I realized that the pants weighed less.

The talisman was gone; Sandra’s gypsy fingers must have lifted it out of my pants pocket while I was embracing her. She had packed it and taken it with her. I leaped out of bed and fished in my pocket. It was gone, all right, but there was a note in Sandra’s boxy, eighth-grade-style handwriting:

 

 

Dick,

Pleeze don’t think of me as an Indian giver.

I gave you what you wanted, but now it’s time to take it back. After all, it was never really mine to give you in the first place.

All my love,

Sandra

 

P.S. Diane’s at Kirk’s.

 

 

All I could focus on were the last three words: Diane’s at Kirk’s. I shut off the lamp and went back to bed. Tension and shock stiffened me like rigor mortis, but somehow I eventually drifted off to troubled sleep.

Dreams of the children in peril. The children lost forever. I wept in my sleep, disconsolate over the fact that I’d paid insufficient attention to their growing up, clutching against the quicksilver of fleeting memory, terrified that I might forget the details of their childhood and that through my forgetting they might cease to exist at all. In my dream I ached to hold them, to tell them that all was well, that Diane and I were both there for them always. I slept fitfully, and every time I awoke it was to night terrors.

Diane’s at Kirk’s.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Six – Lupercalifragilisticexpialidoshus

 

I lucked out. When I showed up less than prepared and totally unmotivated for the Misty Weegers trial, the defense attorney offered me seventeen thousand dollars before we’d even made it to chambers. Sticker price—policy limits—was only twenty. We both knew they’d never pay sticker because, as we also both knew, sticker minus three-halves of the two thousand dollars Kokker would charge me for an hour of his testimony equals seventeen thousand. In my business everybody’s a mind reader. Defense knew I’d have to accept, that I couldn’t take a chance damaging my client in hopes of getting my name in the jury verdict reporter’s fool-of-the-month column for obtaining an uncollectible paper judgment in excess of policy limits. There was no other choice. The only ones with any money in this country are the insurance companies and the people who worship Satan. Sometimes for me the distinction tends to blur.

For all my emotion in my dreams, by morning the urgency of attending to the children’s basic needs overcame any unrestrained expressions of affection. I’d managed to call upon one of the church ladies to cover for me before and after Wolf’s preschool, and I drove the others to school myself before court. In answer to their inevitable questions, I kept repeating that Mommy was sick and that she was going to be all right. She’d be home soon, I assured them.

Over the next several days we fell into an uneasy domestic routine. I brought in a lot of fast food while trying to resurrect what rudimentary cooking knowledge I’d managed to retain after fourteen years of being cared for. Laundry, dishes, and homework consumed mornings and evenings. Finally, on Valentine’s Day after midnight, with me still at the sink, the phone rang. It was Diane.

“Hello, darling,” she said. Her voice was a caress that brought me back fourteen years and more. Nervous as a teenager on his first date, weak in the legs, I longed to sit down but there was no chair near enough to the kitchen phone. I tried to put all the emotion I felt at bay, to seem cordial and non-threatening. To bring her back home again.

“I miss you, hon. We all miss you.” Mistake to use the plural pronoun? Diane had expressed rage against the children right before she’d left; it might even remind her of Sandra.

“I miss you, too,” Diane sighed. I thought I heard music in the background.

“Whatcha up to?” It came across too much like baby talk.

“Oh, you know, the usual,” she lilted. “Fucking, sucking. There’s a lovely black gentleman—quite a big black gentleman, actually—who’s letting me catch the brass ring. You know, the one attached to his foreskin.” As if on cue, uproarious mixed laughter—loud and unmistakably at my expense—sounded in the background. She must have had me on speaker all along. I’d misjudged the malice in her voice for come-hither languor.

“Happy Lupercalia, darling,” she whispered in a faux-Marilyn kiss-off.

Ramses’ voice: “Yeah, happy Lupercalia, darling motherfucker.” More laughter from the peanut gallery of perverts.

“Don’t you have that a little turned around, asshole? You’re the pimp motherfucker—”

Someone had already slammed the phone down at the other end, probably saving me from a short lifetime of looking over my shoulder.

Funny, divorce was still unthinkable to me. Some smirking third-floor jockey wanting to argue QDROs and 401Ks out in the hall while we threw the babies out with the bathwater seemed like something that only happened to clients, not attorneys. All I wanted to do was pull Diane out of that house, talk some sense into her, get her grounded back in reality. One thought tore at me, a singsong children’s taunt:

 

 

Once she goes black, she’ll never come back.

Once she goes black, she’ll never come back.

Once she goes black, she’ll never come back.

 

 

I pictured Ramses on that first tape with Sandra, skewering her with an organ that didn’t look human. Staring at my wedding ring, I visualized his, that vain affectation twinkling off the end of his foreskin like an OK sign. I wanted to come crashing into Kokker’s obscene mansion and guillotine the testicles of every man who ever even glimpsed my wife and had an impure thought. Like those Attis-worshippers Kokker loved to talk about, I wanted to take a bath in the blood of the bull.

But I didn’t want a divorce. In fact, I loved Diane more at that moment than ever before. I’d asked for and deserved everything I’d gotten. I had learned that whatever you do really does come back to you three times over. I’d left my wife at home, sat in the dark, and stared at the bimbos on Ramses’ stage, paying him for the privilege. Now he was paying me back. Somehow the whole thing made me feel clean, as though I’d killed my Minotaur and the bloodbath was already over.

The next two weeks or so, even though Cheesefare Sunday was still a month away we ate a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches. We often wore mismatched socks and iron-scorched clothing. We tried to make the best of things. The succession of church ladies—I think they saw me as the good guy in our separation—urged me to attend vespers with the children, saying it was the best thing to heal a broken marriage. Father Seraphim would know just what to do. Put everything in God’s hands. Finally I took their advice and got everybody ready on Saturday evening.

 

 

The heavy white incense smoke from the censer smelled like a medicinal soap. Father Seraphim seemed to give the censer a couple of extra shakes my way as he passed. That’s what my soul needed: fumigating. After vespers, one of the church ladies was kind enough to take the children downstairs and sit with them in the church hall while I waited in the front pew, reciting the Prayer before Confession.

Under the stole, facing the Icon of Christ, I spilled it all to Father Seraphim. Father Seraphim gave the Prayer of Absolution and told me to go in peace. My hand was already on the doorknob when he asked, “Have you gone to the cemetery yet to visit your mother?”

I flinched. Was this some newly devised penance?

“Whatever happened to letting the dead bury their dead?”

He regarded me curiously, seeming to look right through me. “That job is finished,” he said. “It is the dead who have long since buried her there. Pay your respects, then look to heaven for the salvation of your own soul. Now go in peace.”

“You already said that.”

“I am old,” he said. “I’m allowed to repeat myself now and then.”

 

 

I dropped in on Liz Hare that Monday around noon. She declined my lunch invitation, so I told her what I’d come to say while the two of us faced off in her occult shop. I stood by the cash register. She perched on a high stool behind the counter flipping through a set of Star of Isis tarot cards and laying them out in patterns that looked to me like a four-handed game of casino blackjack.

“This town’s been a convention of tabloid TV and print journalists since the Diaz story broke,” I said. “Get much spillover?”

“Just some local television reporter wanting a human interest sound bite on the satanic angle,” she replied.

“Guess you’re kind of nervous right about now.”

“On the contrary, Ricky. I’m serene. Serene as the dead.”

“So what do the cards tell you?”

“Change. Loss. Death. Treachery lying in wait close by. Since you ask.”

“Must be something to those cards after all. I mean, what if Diaz decides to talk and cuts a deal, giving you up on the Gwendace murder-for-hire? Talk about your treachery lying in wait.”

“Dear boy,” she purred, “I’m reading for you.”

“Diaz told me all about how you were after Gwendace to have a baby with you and how she turned you down flat. You must have been dealing with some deadly rage all right, what with that old biological clock of yours ticking away like the one in a crocodile’s stomach. An old crocodile’s stomach. What had you invested in that woman, twenty years? I’ll bet you were fit to be tied when she refused you the patented Lilith cult finger-fuck, am I right, Liz?”

“You know how crazy you sound right now? Look, I just turned up the Sorceress.”

“What does that mean?”

“That means inadmissible hearsay. And here’s the Magician.”

“What does that signify?”

She must have been annoyed by my patronizing smirk. “That’s the race card you’ve heard so much about, Ricky,” she said quietly. “It signifies your wife’s fucking a nigger.”

I swept the cards off the counter onto the floor in one wide swipe. “Ooh, bad luck to do that,” she keened. “Get a grip, Ricky. You want to strangle me right now, don’t you?”

“You killed Gwendace.”

“I loved Gwendace.”

“You loved her enough to kill her.”

“You know what they say in court,” she answered. “Prove it.”

 

 

When I got back to the office a lone reporter sat waiting for me in the lobby, literally hat in hand. It was one of those Front Page reporter hats they wear inside. He sure looked the part. He’d done the legwork and ferreted out Diaz’s moonlighting for our firm, probably by combing through summons returns at the Circuit Clerk’s office and finding Diaz’s name on most of the service affidavits for our civil cases.

He worked for an e-zine called Running Head. It fell to me to throw him out. Instead, I took him up on his offer to buy me a drink. At the No Nonsense Saloon we sat at the bar, a discreet half-dozen stools down from a couple of serious afternoon drinkers. You want to talk Grisly Discoveries, I’ll talk Grisly Discoveries with you—if you buy me a drink first. So we talked Grisly Discoveries. Harvesting the Hands of His Victims. Nice Guy, Kept to Himself. Take My Hand, I’m a Stranger in Belleville. The man from Running Head turned out to be a college junior with ambitions of being the next Stone Phillips. I liked him more and more with each drink. Silly drunk by now, by way of a joke I told the kid if he looked any better I might go queer for him.

Despite the noise from the gathering happy hour crowd, the bartender—a Semper Fi type who might have been the owner—overheard me and told us both to haul our asses out of there, he wasn’t runnin’ no Frisco bathhouse.

I felt bad for the kid after having gotten him eighty-sixed for no better reason than guilt by association. It was already dark outside, but the Sphinx Lounge was out of the question. The kid looked at me strangely when I said that he should accompany me to my car, that I had something to show him—something that would jump-start his career.

After taking him down the wrong block by mischance, I finally located my car where I had parked it that morning. I popped the trunk, grabbed the red-foil gift bag where I’d replaced it, and, as in some absurdly paranoid spy fantasy game, wrapped my hand in my pocket handkerchief before retrieving the Betamax tape. I opened his jacket and dropped the tape into the inside pocket, warning him mysteriously not to touch it with his bare hands.

 

 

I hit a couple more bars after the man from Running Head abruptly took his leave of me there on the street. Unencumbered by companionship, I imbibed freely. Perhaps too freely. Once home, I dismissed the church-lady babysitter, endured her shock and outrage, and flopped onto the marital bed, which commenced spinning out-of-balance in Diane’s absence. I managed to slow the bedspins using mind over matter, although vomiting helped considerably. The bed was down to 45 RPM when the first call came in.

“Mr. Galeer? I’m awful sorry if’n I woke you all up.”

“Misty? Is that you? How did you get my home number?” I was in no condition to perform wacko maintenance, especially for a case that had already settled for near blue-book price. But the case wasn’t what Misty wanted to talk about.

“Celestal’s gone, Mr. Galeer.”

Why did a cash settlement always provoke crisis in poverty-stricken marriages? “Well, Misty,” I began, “I don’t do divorces, and even if I did, I’d have a conflict—”

“No, Mr. Galeer, you don’t understand. He’s gone. Along about midnight he gets this call? You know, at the house? Says it’s from some strange woman who gives him an address, makes him write it down, and then tells him to go there tonight if’n he wants to shake hands with the woman what murdered his daddy. He said that’s just how she put it: shake hands.”

I waited a couple of beats, trying to make sense of it all, then said, “You know, Misty, I must have a touch of the flu bug or something. Forgive me, but I’m having a little trouble following all this.”

“Celestal’s daddy kilt hisself, Mr. Galeer—he waren’t murdered. But Celestal up and hightails it out the door with that address in his hand not two hours ago. I ain’t seen hide nor hair of him since.”

“Hide nor hair? What time is it, Misty?”

“It’s nigh onto two-thirty in the morning, Mr. Galeer. I’m sorry to bother you all, but I got nowhere else to turn. You are our lawyer.”

I told myself I really didn’t need this with stale whiskey fumes billowing in my stomach. I told her that there was nothing I could do but that she should call the police and the hospitals, figuring it would keep her busy for a while at least. It’d be good therapy for her until she calmed down and Celestal skulked in the door with a below-average flat tire tall tale to tell.

If Misty was Marley’s Ghost, the next call was the Ghost of Christmas Past. Mark Kane, telling me I’m the man. I made him repeat it, my voice a dry whisper.

“I said, you’re the man for the job tonight, Ricky. I need you to make an urgent house call.”

Irritation crept unbidden into my tone. “We’re not curing cancer here. What’s the emergency?”

He gave me the address. I recognized it as the Kokker mansion. Diane’s at Kirk’s.

“I need you over here right away, Ricky. You’re the senior Missouri-licensed attorney.”

“What’s wrong? Has something happened to Diane?”

A long, Mark Kane trademark pause. Everybody waits for the Great Man to speak. He said, “You should have taken that offer while you still had the chance.”

“Why? Has something happened to Sandra?”

Before the line went dead, he said only, “Things got a bit out of hand.”

 

 

I checked on the children. All were sleeping soundly. The church lady would never consent to return tonight. She’d suspect me of sneaking out to another bar to drink off my hangover. I could hardly blame her—what lawyer makes a house call at three in the morning? Against my better judgment, I left them home alone sleeping in their beds and headed west to see about putting right whatever shameful debauch of Kokker’s had escalated into a legal crisis.

I picked out Kane’s Lexus where it stood parked like a white shadow amongst three Town and Country squad cars and the coroner’s wagon. I nosed my smoking car behind and almost touching his, hoping mine would drip a prodigal amount of oil. I rang the bell, staring at the great mahogany doors that had probably cost more than my last three years’ raises. Sin—the massage parlors, the gambling boats, the quack clinics, and the glib lies under oath—had built this house. Sin and the luck of the Lilith talisman cohabited and took their ease here, fattening the heart as well as the purse of the householder. They were master and mistress of this house, not he—he was their slave.

Hephzibah answered, taciturn as a cigar store wooden Indian and in as much of a hurry. Before I could identify myself, she announced, in an accent more East Saint Louis than Haiti, “They down in the rapscallion room.”

I knew the way. I knocked and heard slipping chains and the clunking release of the Fox lock before the big door swung open. Through my hangover, I heard Kane’s oily voice saying, “Join us, Ricky. We’re watching CNN.”

Kokker and Janis sat together in the conversation pit, fully dressed as if for the office, him holding her hand. Diane sat at his feet like one of the Manson clan, wearing nothing other than a crimson robe, her head shaved completely bald like his, her arm twined around his calf. They made a pensive threesome, but who was consoling whom, and why? I didn’t speak to her.

Kane reset the elaborate locks behind us. As I followed him into the rathskeller and skirted the industrial-strength fire in the gas hearth, my eyes focused along with everyone else’s on the huge TV hovering like a UFO.

The man from Running Head was on CNN. They’d made him lose the Hildy Johnson hat, but he still wore the earnest look that would probably slingshot him to fame. His name was Jerry something, according to the video byline. I recognized the darkened Belleville courthouse and the fountain in the background. We watched with the sound down. No one spoke; there was only the metallic hiss of the gas flame.

The scene switched. Kane said, “Here it comes again.”

The screen showed a place I hadn’t seen in years and one that evoked memories better left forgotten: the Salome Spa’s waterbed room. Black velvet paintings of busty nude women were rendered cubist by digitally added dancing squares. Carla was on her knees, clothed only in a blue bikini of optical censor dots. The woman behind Carla with her arm around Carla’s neck looked like Madeleine with a couple more years on her, but I knew it had to be Janis. The heel of her hand against Carla’s right temple, Janis made Carla’s head face left while her body stayed at parade rest. Carla’s head lolled, her body held up between Janis’s powerful arms. Janis produced the dagger, held it at present arms—blade upraised like a sword—then plunged the glinting blade again and again into the center of the top soft-focus blue dot, which modestly obscured everything but the bloodied blade and Janis’s forearms gloved in gore.

It was the money shot to end all money shots. Kokker turned up the volume. We heard a sound like cleaning a chicken. I knew in that moment the scene was destined to take its rightful place in the television iconography of man’s inhumanity to man, right up there with the Vietnam street execution and the Zapruder film.

A youthful Diaz stood unnoticed behind Janis almost from the beginning, watching it all from the doorway, then joining in. There must not have been enough blue dots to cover up what followed, because CNN cut back to Jerry at the courthouse just before the first hand came off.

Kokker said, “Leave us.” Still half-drunk, I started toward the door before realizing that had to be the vocal command to shut off the TV.

Kane broke the silence that followed. “The unspoken question on everyone’s lips, of course, is how? How did a local reporter get his hands on that tape? Kirk feels you might be able to elucidate, Ricky. Are you?”

I said nothing but glared at Diane cuddling against Kokker like a favorite daughter, resting her chin on his knee.

Kane added, “Kirk can’t help but suspect that his current domestic mélange may have something to do with what appears, unfortunately, to have been an egregious—even deliberate—breach of attorney-client privilege and the rule of confidentiality, not to mention rendering our Janis here a wanted woman.”

“Why are the police here?” I asked. “And the meat wagon?”

“I think the issue under discussion is rather more urgent,” Kane said. “Let the dead bury their dead. And now Kirk informs me you may be the person responsible for the theft not only of the tape in question but also of a priceless ancient artifact from his private collection. What do you have to say for yourself about that, Ricky?”

I turned my back to the conversation pit, faced Kane, and said, “Here’s what I have to say: fuck everybody else’s priorities. All anybody seems to want around here is that damn talisman. Tell Kokker to give me my wife back or I drop it off the Poplar Street Bridge into the Mississippi River to see if it floats.”

Janis let go of Kokker’s hand. “Diane wants to stay here with us,” she said. “Why don’t you ask her yourself? She’s right here. You want to stay, don’t you, Diane dear?”

Diane, eyes glazed, nodded.

“Take that damn necklace off her and then ask her the same thing again,” I said.

“It’s after ten o’clock, Ricky. Do you know where your children are?” Janis asked.

“Who’s watching your daughter, bitch?”

“Let me put it this way, Ricky darling.” Janis’s tone was patronizing yet filled with menace. “Bring us the talisman before midnight tomorrow, or you’ll never see your children again. It’s the Lilith Sabbat. Diane is going to be our guest of honor. Please don’t deny us the pleasure of your company. You’ll see Diane be introduced to Demon Mother herself and complete her initiation. It’s her destiny, you know. If you behave, we might even let you give the bride away.”

“What the hell’s the matter with you people? What have you done with my kids?”

“Don’t worry, Ricky,” Janis cooed. “They’re in a safe place. For now. Auntie Liz has them. She let herself in using Diane’s key, woke them, and told them they’re going to go see their mommy. It all happened not ten minutes after you left them at home alone. Sad, isn’t it? You can’t trust anybody these days. Give us the talisman, Ricky. Not even the blood club wants to hang your kiddies upside down and slit their little throats for them. Not really.”

I ran for the door. Janis—or was it Diane? —laughed when I fumbled, struggling to open the locks. Halfway up the stairs I heard the locks closing again behind me.

Was it possible none of them knew Sandra had stolen back the talisman? It had to have been secreted either in her clothing or in her suitcase when she left our home. Had she managed to keep it from Kokker?

Hephzibah stood at the head of the rathskeller stairs like a suit of armor. “Where’s Mrs. Kokker?” I demanded.

She smiled malevolently. “She in the tub,” was all she said.

A uniformed officer blocked my way into the master bath. “You another friend of the family?” he asked. Kane must have already identified himself as such.

“No, I’m Dr. and Mrs. Kokker’s attorney.”

“What’s he think he needs an attorney for?” The cop had a brusque manner for someone who must have spent most of his night shifts refereeing rich people’s domestic disputes and keeping it all out of the papers.

“How should I know what he thinks? What’s going on?” Two of the coroner’s people were lifting a black body bag onto a gurney. The smell of cordite cut the perfume of lavender bath salts. I noticed a uniformed security guard sitting between two detectives, disconsolate, head resting in his hands. Acne-scarred, with a weed whacker haircut and a Wolf Pack Armed Response shoulder patch, the kid looked like an overgrown cub scout, a clone of the one who’d terrorized Celestal and Misty cleaning the office.

Celestal and Misty. I peered over the cop’s shoulder and past the sunken green marble tub. Kokker’s prize obsidian dildo lay in pieces beside a chalk outline that, going by body type, could have been Celestal’s less-than-final resting place.

“Heads up, Bub,” one morgue attendant said. I stepped aside to let them trundle the gurney past me out the bathroom door. Something—call it drunkard’s intuition—told me Celestal had greased his last zerk.

“I was told Mrs. Kokker might be bathing,” I said. “I need to speak with her.”

“I need a million dollars, tax-free,” the cop observed. “I guess a second ID of the body couldn’t hurt, though. Step in here and tell me if you recognize the lady of the house.”

Sandra’s face, leering from strangulation, floated just below the surface of the bathwater. Her mammoth breasts broke through the bubble-bath flume like twin volcanic islands in some South Pacific paradise. Her piddies had been in the water too long, fingers and toes gone pruny.

“That’s Mrs. Kokker,” I said. “How did it happen?”

“Perp must have been some kind of sick weirdo,” the cop elucidated. “Set off three silent alarms getting into the house. Rent-a-cop found him standing over the body, ordered him to freeze, but the goofy nut grabs this big stone dick and wields it like a bludgeon. Saying some crazy shit like, ‘She killed my daddy.’ Refused a direct order to drop his weapon, so the kiddie cop discharged his right through the suspect’s ay-orta. Looks like a righteous kill to us.”

I stood over the body and crossed myself, feeling like I was in the way. The lady of the house’s bedroom was stage left. When the cop wandered off, I slipped in and had a quick look around.

Sandra’s suitcase stood just inside the walk-in closet, probably right where she’d left it. I grabbed the suede handle, turned, and carried it out past the crime scene as though nothing was amiss. For all the attention anyone paid me, I could have carted off the silver, then made a second trip for the good china.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven – Mineral Oil with Macanudo

 

I threw Sandra’s suitcase into my trunk and took off. Let Kane handle it from here. The cops would never ask him to show them his Missouri bar card. They’d be as impressed as everybody else by the privilege of talking to a TV commercial celebrity like Mark Kane—the Cal Worthington of the legal profession.

I parked a few car-lengths down from the gates of the Kokker estate with the engine running and waited until the second coroner’s wagon arrived and then departed with its grisly passenger. I followed it at a respectful distance all the way to the county morgue in Clayton. Plenty of free parking so late at night; all the Pucci and Gucci upscale boutiques had closed down hours ago. I sat in my car deciding what to do until the first pink shot of dawn began to glow over the Metro east beyond the river.

I didn’t really believe Janis’s threats about the children. In particular, her claim that Liz might be willing to assist her didn’t wash. If I called the house now, I’d only wake and terrify the kids by my absence. I couldn’t call and ask anyone to check on them, either, without arousing suspicion that I’d negligently left them alone in the first place. And if Janis was telling the truth, there was nothing to do but return the talisman and save them.

There’s never any security in hospital operating rooms. A guy could charge into an OR and spray silly string into an appendectomy before anyone would have the presence of mind to stop him. Morgues are no different. No one at the desk, the door at the far end of an official-looking corridor left propped open. Nothing worth stealing here, Bub. Move along.

Under Illinois law a corpse is property of the next-of-kin but has no intrinsic monetary value. So try suing a funeral home for damages if they happen to lose Aunt Tillie’s mortal remains. I hadn’t had occasion to research Missouri law on that point but assumed it was the same. For all the care that had been taken to keep me out, I might as well have wandered into a public rest room at the bus terminal.

The female attendant already had Sandra laid out on a gleaming stainless-steel autopsy table without so much as the covering of a winding sheet. Sandra looked yellow under the harsh halogen light overhead, even though after being fished out of the tub she wore more makeup than the attendant, whose picture ID badge pinned to her white lab smock read Medical Examiner.

“Friend of the bride or friend of the groom?” she asked.

I reached for Diaz’s wallet and flipped his badge at her without speaking. She barely glanced at it, but asked, “Why’s Illinois interested?”

“Perp’s an Illinois resident,” I said. “We’re checking out a conspiracy angle. It’s probably nothing.”

“Any questions, then?” She stood there amused, a museum docent looking for a show of hands.

I shifted uneasily on my feet before asking her the one that had been harrowing me for weeks. “Well, like for instance, can you tell us whether or not she was pregnant at the time of her death?”

“Think this was an abortion the hard way, maybe?” Her sense of humor was already beginning to grate on me, but I affected a cop’s hard exterior and nodded.

The medical examiner snapped on a pair of latex gloves from a roll in a wall dispenser. She pulled a black penlight from her lab coat pocket and stuck it in her mouth, shifting it around in there like a Macanudo while she used both hands to spread Sandra’s vulvar folds more brusquely than the most insensitive of gynecologists.

“C’mere and look at this,” she exclaimed. “She’s got a clit like Kilroy’s schnozz. I should have such a clit.” I cleared my throat with embarrassment.

“Where was I when these were being handed out? Or my girlfriend, for that matter?” At last, seeming annoyed, she stood and impatiently searched a tray of instruments on the counter.

“I need a duckbill speculum for this job,” she muttered. Finding something that resembled a set of salad tongs on steroids, she plunged it into Sandra with a gusto that made me cringe, reminding me of a thousand old jokes about the whore who died with a smile on her face. None of them seemed all that funny anymore.

She made clucking noises with her tongue. “This gal’s been used and abused,” she said. The penlight clenched in her teeth made her sound like Edward G. Robinson. Finally she peeled off the gloves and stood erect.

“What’d you say your name was? Garcia?”

“Uh, yeah.”

Her smile widened, baring a couple of dry teeth. “Well, Diaz, you can tell your cop buddy to get off his Catholic guilt trip and quit worrying. This gal’s no more pregnant than you are.”

The news astounded me. I couldn’t think of another fake question to keep the charade going. My mouth must have been hanging open when she reached for a bottle of mineral oil and asked me, “Wanna little goodbye ride before you hit that lonesome trail, cowboy?”

I was already edging toward the door, badge in pocket. “N-no.”

“C’mon. She’s all clean and pretty for you. Though I’ll bet you a month’s salary you can’t make her moan.”

Her laughter, hard and threatening as surgical steel, pursued me down the wide, darkened corridor. My silhouette reflected off the high-gloss tile floor and lengthened ahead of me like an accusing specter.

 

 

I sped toward the brightening dawn like Dracula was on my ass. By the time I passed the city, all the morning rush-hour traffic was headed the other way. The house seemed quiet and dark. When I tried the side door, it was unlocked.

I raced upstairs. Checked one bedroom, then the other.

All the beds were empty.

I ran through the whole house, frantically calling out their names like the idiot I was. The entire place had been torn apart as if by vandals—every drawer’s contents dumped and rifled, every closet ransacked. Finally I wound up in Diane’s workroom. The computer was on, screen-saver eye rolling. I hit one key and read the one-sentence message Liz and her crew had left there for me on the word processor:

Give her what she asks, or four little kittens will lose their mittens.

It took a few moments for the intended meaning to sink in. That Liz could be capable of cutting off my babies’ hands if the talisman were not returned to Janis filled me with horror. I don’t even remember retrieving Sandra’s designer suitcase and schlepping it up to our bedroom. When a hairpin didn’t work fast enough on the locks I tried an eighteen-inch screwdriver, jamming it behind the mechanism and tearing the expensive leather. I popped out first one then the other latch and folded the suitcase open.

There was something undeniably prurient about fingering a dead woman’s silky underthings in the privacy of my marital bedroom. I paused to check the size of the first lacy brassiere I encountered—thirty-eight triple D—before digging deeper. In a zippered makeup case buried in designer-label dresses I found what everybody had been searching for.

I threw myself on the bed and wept for the terror and pain I’d caused my children, for the loss of my darling Diane, and for the death of Sandra. Why had she deceived me? Had I been no more than a pawn in her game of trying to make Kokker jealous enough to abandon his divorce plans? Now Kokker had saved himself a cool million or more and made my wife his whore in the bargain.

I called the mansion. A female voice answered.

“Attorney Ricky Galeer to speak to Dr. Kokker,” I said in a tone I reserved for the office, even though it was well before office hours.

“Hi, Mr. Galeer. It’s me. Madeleine. How’s it going?”

“Madeleine? Is your mother there? Put her on, please.”

“That’s all I ever do,” Mad said. “Put that sleaze on.”

“C’mon, Mad, let me speak to her now. It’s an emergency.”

“Sorry I can’t accommodate you, Mr. Galeer. They’re both in bed, her and Baldy the Slick, with a Do Not Disturb sign hung on the door. It’s sick. A girl my age needs some positive adult role models, you know?”

“Then let me talk to my wife.”

“Same answer. Same bed. Only now she’s shaved off, as bald as he is. Your wife must have gotten weird on you or something, Mr. Galeer. My mother’ll do that to a person—”

“Ricky? I heard the phone. Is that you?” Janis’s voice, with an edge of urgency just below the surface.

“Hi, Sleaze. Finally coming up for air?”

“Hang up, Madeleine. Right now.”

The signal got stronger. Janis said, “She’s off. Have you the article we discussed?”

“Not on me, but I can get it. Did you have to tear up my place while you were kidnapping my kids?”

Janis didn’t trust phones. “I’m sorry,” she said. “We must have a bad connection. Can you hear me now?”

“I hear you. We have no connection at all, but I hear you.”

“Fine. Then bring the article in question to the place where you and I last met. Do it tonight, before midnight.”

“There are some conditions that have to be agreed to first.”

“Is this where I’m supposed to say, ‘you’re in no position to bargain?’”

“Let me ask you something, Janis. You and Kokker never saw eye to eye. Why are you two working together now? Madeleine says you’re even sleeping together. And what’s Madeleine doing there anyway? The police would be real interested if they knew she’s still alive and well.”

“She’s not at all well,” Janis said. “Madeleine is a very traumatized young woman. Traumatized by the uses of men. Kirk feels she may benefit from hypnotherapy and a holistic health approach best administered on an inpatient basis.”

“Does that include the Kokker maneuver?”

“Beg pardon?”

“How long do these holistic treatments last? About twenty minutes apiece?”

A pause. “Why don’t you ask your wife?” Then she added, before hanging up, “Tonight. Before midnight. It’s not nice to keep Demon Mother waiting.”

 

 

Not even seven A.M. yet. I could have used some of Artie’s quick energy crystals about now. For lack of imagination, I left for the office after slipping the dagger and scabbard into my jacket. The talisman hung over my heart while I drove. How many lives had it taken, every twenty years since time immemorial?

I kept my overcoat on after disarming the security system at the office. Sandra’s last will and testament file was lying on a secretary’s desk, buried in a stack of new files to be opened. A memo cross-referenced it to another file involving a contract matter. A photocopy was inside the manila folder, but not the original will.

Belying the millions in Sandra’s estate, the will was simple indeed—only one page in length including the witness’ affidavit. Kane himself had witnessed, and Benoit, whom Sandra late in life had taken to calling “Ben Wa balls.” It had been executed that day in the office when Kane had called her in before he made his million-dollar pitch to me.

The will was simple because it named a sole beneficiary: Celestal Weegers. No after-born children were disinherited; there was no in terroram clause. It looked like something out of a do-it-yourself kit. Why had no one feared this particular will might be vulnerable to challenge by Kokker as Sandra’s surviving spouse? Kokker could easily have renounced the will and claimed his nonbarrable share, but then he would receive only one-third of the considerable estate, all of which had been set up in Sandra’s name for tax purposes. Given the dizzying sums involved, he would certainly have contested the will in a gamble to re-acquire the remaining two-thirds. If the will were set aside and the estate rendered intestate, Kokker would have been able to claim it all. And why were there only two witnesses, when as a precaution our office and Benoit’s insisted on three, because some states required that many to prove a will?

It was radiant malpractice, in my opinion, to draw such a rinky-dink will for a woman of Sandra’s wealth. Unless the person doing the drafting never intended the will to be probated at all and somehow knew it never would be.

I searched for the cross-indexed contracts file and found it next one down in the stack. Inside was a photocopy of a prenup agreement signed by the same two witnesses but dated one week before Kokker’s wedding day. It limited Sandra to one million dollars regardless of the fault of the parties should a divorce occur, payable to a trustee to be designated in that event by her attorney, Duane Benoit. A separate photocopied document contained a recital by Benoit that he had thoroughly reviewed the agreement with his client, Sandra, that Kokker had made a full and detailed disclosure of his “then assets,” and that Sandra, “being fully advised,” had chosen to enter into the prenup agreement “as her free and voluntary act.”

Somebody who didn’t like taking any chances was taking extremely good legal care of Doctor Kirk Kokker’s interests vis-à-vis his late wife’s.

Duane Benoit was the most cautious guy I knew. There was only one problem: Sandra had never met Benoit before this year.

 

 

Cautious guys come to the office early. The light was on, door open in Benoit’s modest suite. No receptionist was in yet. I stood in the waiting room and called out, “You guys do wills?”

Benoit appeared almost at once in shirtsleeves and suspenders, wearing half-lens wire rims and an old-fashioned banker’s green eyeshade. I felt like telling him the Belleville sesquicentennial was long over. He smiled a greeting as he crossed toward me, then stopped short when he got close enough to read the labels on the two files I was holding in my hand.

“Another happy customer,” I remarked. Something about his facial expression told me he knew what I meant, that Sandra was dead and Euripides sage as ever. But he said nothing. Like lawyers who’d attended the same seminar on listening skills, we each gave the other one-hundred-twenty seconds of silent attention. He lost the stare-down but bounced back chipper and banal.

“What brings you here so bright and early, Ricky? Turning over a new leaf?”

“Kirk Kokker didn’t have a prenup. I found that out last month when I made a house call to his mansion. In fact, his face went white when I mentioned it to him.”

“He actually say anything to you about that, or did you just read it in his white face?”

“You a Freemason, Duane?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Because I think you may have been doing a little time-traveling. Sandra Kokker never met you until last month, yet you advised her and signed off on her prenup way back in 1988.”

“She must have forgotten. Your boss will back me up, and it’s her word against his and mine.”

“You know better than that, Duane.” I waved the two files at him. “I wonder if a forensic documents expert could match the ink on these two babies. You think it’s dry yet?”

He lunged for the files. I let him have them without a fight, even though I was armed with a very fancy antique knife. I’d made other photocopies. He tore through both folders before realizing they contained no originals.

“Let this one go, Ricky,” he said. “She’s dead anyway. Give me a break—yanking my ticket and sending me to prison won’t bring her back, but it sure as shit will ruin me and my career.”

“How many times you think you can use first person in a single sentence, Duane?”

“Look, Ricky, confidentially I was the one trying to save her life. I saw all this coming. If you’d done the smart thing and taken the deal, which everybody but me expected you to do, she’d be alive today, Kokker’d have his new little chippy, and you’d be a million dollars richer. But I told Kane, I said, ‘Ricky’s got this integrity thing, this home and family hang-up. It’ll take more than big tits and big bills to turn him.’ Nobody listened. Nobody ever listens.”

“So what’d it take to turn you, Duane? Confidentially.”

“Would you believe tape? Videotape. Stretched end-to-end it probably wouldn’t reach that wall. But what was on it was what turned me. That’s all I’m saying. You know how it is.”

I left Duane staring at the carpet like he was waiting for a hell mouth to open up for him. Somehow I didn’t think he’d have to wait long. As for me, I wasn’t through paying my respects to the dead.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight – Desecration Day

 

It was a pretty drive to Salem. By the time I made it there around ten, the morning sun had burned away most of the frost and further tattered the grave-blanket of snow, exposing the dead fields of loam and clay. Stopping off at the Village Hall, I went through two clerks before finding one old biddy who could give me directions to a cemetery that wasn’t on any plat map.

The county road led to an unmarked gravel lane. Gravel became dirt. Swerving and fishtailing, I feared losing the car in the shallow ditch miles from the nearest farmhouse. If this road turned completely to mud before I ventured home, the early thaw might make me as much a prisoner as my mother’s corpse ripening below the frost line.

The mud road ran along a ridge lined with a windbreak of huge poplars standing like sentinels guarding a dark secret. Then, after a mile or more, I spotted it standing on a rise off to the left: one of those secluded country cemeteries you barely notice along quiet rural roads. I’d driven as close as I dared; the road threatened to transform itself into a grass waterway or a dry creek bed. I stopped and parked in the ruts that had brought me there.

Luckily I’d thought to wear my high-topper tennis shoes. I had to slog across wet headlands of government ground perhaps twenty rods long to reach the cemetery. Set apart by a lancet-tipped, wrought-iron fence like a diadem gone black with tarnish, it crowned a hill surrounded on three sides by woods grown wild. As I drew closer to enter, I looked above my head and recognized the insignia that towered over the visitor like a capstone in hell’s lich gate.

The owl with a dying snake in its beak. I rubbed my eyes and slipped the Lilith talisman from its hiding place to be sure. It felt warm from my exertion. When I held it in the air with both hands to compare it side-by-side with the other, I thought I heard an infernal chorus of faint wails emanating from the ground beneath my feet. They were the terrified moanings of once-proud women, of Lilith weeping for her children.

The two symbols were identical. This was one boneyard with the Lilith cult’s own mascot for a watchdog. Time’s passage had eroded many of the older gravestones like soap—some of the birth dates so weather-worn they seemed to contain only three digits. The newer markers bore pictures of their deceased in identical delicate frames like miniature Rococo mirrors. I wandered through the rows of unkempt graves until, suddenly, there she was. My mother at about thirty. In archival-quality black-and-white she was already showing signs of the dissipation that would kill her—intimations creeping in like mold around her eyes and at the corners of her mouth. The hard smile on her face seemed indecorous, given her current surroundings.

I stared into her eyes, cold and mineral as the silver nitrate that formed their image. She’d never known Diane or any of the children. Would she have cared for them any more than she’d cared for me? Drink and men’s bodies had been her only loves all her unnatural life.

I fought to quiet the strident voices of memory. Then, already kneeling, I began to pray. It took all I had. I prayed the Orthodox prayer for the dead with tears wrenched from the obscenity of the past and the despair of the present. I prayed for her to find a place of brightness, a place of peace, a place of green pastures, a place of refreshment, where all sickness, sorrow, and sighing have fled away and where the light of God’s countenance shineth forever. I prayed that all her sins would be forgiven her, whether in thought, word, or deed, for there is no man who liveth and sinneth naught. For Thou and Thou alone art without sin, O God.

Then, God forgive me, I held the pocket mirror up to her picture as though checking for life in a corpse. I held it there perpendicular, as Sandra had taught me to do.

The paradise face. My mother had worn it to her grave. I stroked the cold, damp marker, tracing my finger along the dates carved in the cheap limestone—the dates that set the outer limits of her earthly life. The birth date: 1926, the nine already so eroded it seemed more like a seven. I tried to scratch it more distinct with a corner of the mirror. Then I heard a familiar voice ask, “What the hell are you doing here, Ricky?”

That’s when I caught Janis’s reflection standing behind me. So help me, she wore a black velvet cape befitting a gothic apparition. I spun around, almost falling on my ass from the wet and slippery dead sod. The mirror struck the tombstone’s base and broke in pieces.

“I thought you people were supposed to be invisible in a looking glass.”

“You’re confusing me with a vampire,” Janis said. “It’s an understandable mistake. Now give me the talisman.” She outstretched her arm, her red-lacquered fingernails grasping like talons.

“I don’t have it,” I told her. “I hid it inside an antique Russian anoushka doll in Diane’s collection—”

“It’s in your right breast pocket. Give it to me, Vercingetorix. Oh, yes, that is your given name, you know. Your mother chose it for you, naming you after the king of the druids. I ought to know; I was there at your birth.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Janis?”

“Feeling nostalgic? Baby, you don’t know the meaning of the word. I’ve wet-nursed prodigies like you since before the invention of the wheel.”

“You’re not making sense, Janis.”

“Janis. Lilith. What’s in a name? Look inside yourself—you know it’s true. Now give me the talisman, and together we’ll rule the world.” She smirked fetchingly, cocked her head, and added, “I’ll even repeat that special trick I showed you in your office—any time, any place.”

“There’s a little matter of a twenty-year blood guild, isn’t there? Before you and I implement our plan of fellatio and world domination?”

“The Lilith Sabbat will supply the blood tonight. Diane’s blood. You’re a son of a bitch, Ricky. Your mother paid the price. Now it’s Diane’s turn.”

“What price? The penalty the purebloods exact for bringing a half-breed male into the world?”

“It’s called a prodigy, and no, that’s not penalized. We’re all guilty of that, sooner or later. So many enticing opportunities and so much time on our hands.”

“What, then?”

“Why, marriage to a human. The unpardonable offense. Unbearable to our kind. Your mother lost her life for it, and Carla. Regrettably, Sandra’s situation prevented her execution in the traditional manner. No problem. Diane’s sacrifice shall empower our race for another score of years.”

“I’ll see you in hell first.”

Amused by the cliché, she said, “Can you truly hold to the illusion you’ll regret the loss of Diane after all the humiliation she’s inflicted on you? The treachery? The betrayal? After all, she betrayed her own sisterhood, her blood heritage older than creation.”

“That damn necklace has cast some sort of evil spell over her. This is all your doing.”

She threw her head back and laughed. Her teeth were perfect, but then so are a shark’s. “Dear boy,” she said, “Was it my doing that Diane strung that pretty amulet around her lovely neck? Or that she invited into her heart a full-blooded lust for a virtually everlasting life filled with forbidden pleasures? Savor for yourself the delicious irony of it all: her waiting there anticipating the Demon Mother’s illicit touch, then in the time it takes to vault out of paradise or entertain a doubt, beholding her own luscious breasts sliced off along with her procreating hand. You’ll be standing over her as she lies dying in her own gore. I’ll even let you keep the necklace for a souvenir. You men are so fond of trophies.”

“And what about my kids? Are you and I going to drag them along on that world tour you’ve been promising?”

Her expression grew even colder. “Do as you wish. They’ll be guests of honor at the execution tonight. Although if you should understandably choose to leave them to others afterward, they’ll be more than adequately cared for.”

“I’m sure it won’t be the least bit traumatic for them, witnessing their mother butchered.”

“You seem to be forgetting your children are descended more from our kind than from yours. Your sons are greater prodigies than even you yourself. Your daughters too are three-quarter blood. They’re not the sort to be squeamish about an execution. Does a farm child waste pity on the hog at a butchering jamboree?”

“You didn’t waste any pity on Sandra, did you, Janis?”

Her expression, the way she held her head, even her hands assumed an attitude of innocence falsely accused. She looked like the icon of Saint Agnes, but with no lamb at her bosom. “Sandra? Why, I loved the girl. Perhaps not with your passion—”

“Spare me. You’ve got it backward. Sandra wasn’t only in love with Kirk, was she? She was in love with you, too. She couldn’t help herself. Her deadly mistake was in assuming the feeling was mutual. That was the other reason she couldn’t stay away from the mansion, even when her husband wanted to divorce her. That was why she so desperately wanted to keep you away from her husband in the first place—her feelings were all mixed up: love and jealousy for both you and Kirk. Last night she might have been on the lookout for the Kokker maneuver from its namesake, but not from you. You crept up behind her, whispered erotic nothings in her ear, then all at once it’s lights out for her. She slips below the surface of the water, unconscious. The strangulation was later, to make it look good when you framed her sole beneficiary for her murder.”

“Have you heard that methamphetamine abuse can lead to brain damage and insanity? Why on earth would I want Sandra dead?”

“Because it was part of the devil’s pact you struck with Kirk Kokker. I didn’t realize it until too late, after I read Sandra’s real will and phony prenup this morning. Kokker wanted rid of Sandra—I don’t know why, I guess he was bored with her—but he realized he couldn’t risk millions of dollars in holdings through a messy divorce or by killing her himself. Even hiring a hit man would leave too many worrisome loose ends, because he’d have been the only one with a motive. But you have enough legal education and training to know about the Slayer statute, don’t you, Janis? You know: the one that says a beneficiary who murders the testator forfeits all claim under the will? That’s why Sandra’s will was such a joke. The plan all along was for you to call Celestal once the stage was set and tweak him enough to get him over there just in time to stumble into the frame. Misty says Celestal told her it was a woman’s voice on the phone.”

“What do the hornbooks on evidence say about hearsay, declarant dead?”

“Oh, I’m not saying you’ll ever be prosecuted for it. You’re much too smart for that. But with Sandra out of the way, and Diane soon to be out of the way, you’ll ease right in as the wife and soon-to-be widow of Kirk Kokker, filthy mammon intact.”

To my astonishment, she turned and spat. “Nauseating thought,” she shuddered, grimacing as though I’d just picked my nose and eaten the results in front of her.

“Why, then?” Staring at her, I finally comprehended.

“It’s your daughter he wants, isn’t it? He wants Madeleine—a younger, fresher identical twin to you—to corrupt and molest. He offered you the talisman in exchange for your daughter and getting Sandra out of the way. Only now we both know he doesn’t have the talisman anymore.”

“Then give me the talisman and my daughter goes free. You know you love me, Ricky. You’ve loved me since I midwifed your mother the day you were born. Mine was the first face in the world to greet yours. How many men can say that about any woman?”

“You’ve made me love you the same as all the others. You have that power over both men and women. And the ones who love you the most get destroyed: my mother, Carla, Diaz, and now Sandra. And how many more over the centuries, right, Janis or Lilith or whatever the hell your name is?” Remembering what Sandra had told me about demons, I added, “By the way, what the hell is your name?” In retrospect, it was probably a faux pas.

Janis’s countenance turned to molten metal. She looked like nothing in the world so much as a brass idol come to hellish life. Her voice raged and thundered above airport decibel levels.

“Belay your insolence, prodigy. Men have worshipped me under many names the world over since the time before time. I have been called Isis, Astarte, Artemis, Kali. I am the Dark Wanderer, Mistress of the Blood Moon, the Queen of Hell. I am legend and myth made flesh to confound man’s imagination. When Lot’s wife, the falling brimstone a fever against her back, turned for one final peek at destruction, before her gaping mouth and wide eyes turned to rock salt it was my Medusa’s face she saw peering back at her out of the roiling smoke and fire. I am mother to gorgons and sirens. I it was who taught the banshees their soul-piercing wail. I catechized young Cleopatra in the wily arts. It was I who secreted the hooded cobra in her bosom for the final lesson—death’s sweet betrayal—and hid her mummy away where no man might enter. In ancient Greece the witches who knew me only as Hecate learned their murmured spells by rote from my lips. By my black magic they rode astride their male consorts, straddling them like broomsticks. The Amazon women burned off their bowstring breasts to escape my Lucifer’s brand, yet all were sacrificed to demons. I reigned in Salem and in Ephesus. I am She, fleet of foot and long of limb, hair of beast and talons of blood. Last incarnation of the Mother to hordes of swarming demons. I am Lilith!”

An electric-chair thrill burned through my guts when she uttered that name. For some reason, I assumed I’d be in less mortal danger if I made small talk with the apparition. When you want to know something, just ask. I did.

“And your daughter?”

A hideous smile spread across her lips. “A tendril shoot. She is Me and I am She.” Janis fixed me with her heavy-lidded serpent’s eyes and began uttering what seemed to be an incantation in a strange, guttural tongue. It sounded like belching the alphabet backwards at a crazy pitch, and I feared it might mean my damnation. What had Liz said? Some apocryphal story about Solomon keeping seventy demons prisoner by the power of the talisman?

I unsheathed the dagger and brandished it over my head.

“Speak English, God damn you to hell!”

Fast as clapping off a light, Janis reverted to human form. There was a smell like hair burning. “Why, this is hell, Dick,” she said, her voice a perfect imitation of Sandra’s. “Nor am I out of it. You’re the one who went to college. Don’t you know your Marlowe? Queer Chris, we call him down in hell. Yes, he too dabbled in the black arts. Had ambitions of possessing the talisman. His presumptions ended with his being pierced in the eye with it. You men are so squeamish about piercings.”

I held the knife erect. “So have a look into the future. What happens to Kokker? And your daughter?”

“He will have her for a season,” she went on, still in Sandra’s eerily purloined voice, “but his plans will perish.”

“Perish how?”

“His dirty fingerprints are all over the cassette I gave you of Carla’s execution. The authorities will cross-match those prints with the set on file from his chiropractic license application, search his mansion, and uncover all his other nasty secrets.”

“And then?”

She sighed impatiently. “And then, quite tragically, he will die by his own hand. Kirk’s new last will and testament will be discovered in safety deposit box 25597 in the vault of Land Trust Bank in Clayton, Missouri, leaving Madeleine amply provided for. An impressive inheritance shall be hers, as Kirk’s sole beneficiary, on her twenty-first birthday.”

“And you?”

She laughed lustily. “You amuse me,” she said, “as few men do. Give me the talisman and come with me now. I’ll even let Diane keep her dugs and her gearshift hand if they’re that important to you. The lifespan of you mortals is such a brief season—spend it prodigally, roaming the earth with me as my favored consort. I shall reveal wondrous things to you. For behold, at this very moment the picture on Carla’s gravestone is doing a striptease for you, right over there.” She pointed to a row of graves to my left.

Sucker that I am, I lowered the knife to half-mast while my eye roved. By the time I realized I’d been had, Janis’s black-caped form was already flying westward and out of sight like a windborne ash rising from a heretic’s pyre.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine – The Lilith Sabbat

 

As soon as I got back to Belleville I parked in front of Fox & Hare, peered inside the dark shop, and hammered on the door, ignoring the closed sign. No response, except for an angry rebuke from the pensioner who lived upstairs.

Three times I drove around the Belleville police station like an anxious suitor without going inside. Law enforcement seemed hopelessly inept compared to the supernatural elements warring against all I held dear and all I held sacred. I knew how predictably crazy it all would sound to a bored desk sergeant or junior detective. As an associate attorney, I too had with practice synchronized my wackometer for the earnest pressure of speech, the excess intensity in distracted eyes, the talk of improbable rumors and conspiracies in the air. And, not to put too fine a point on it, once I unfolded my crazy-quilt rug merchant’s tale of dark cabals, blood clubs, gypsy kidnappings, and ritual murders to the authorities, I would have failed to rescue my wife and children while at the same time flagging myself as their likely killer. The husband is always the first and last suspect.

So I drove aimlessly around Belleville—boyhood home of Buddy Ebsen. Charles Dickens slept here and cursed the accommodations. Nowadays I could drive over former cow paths and mud roads since paved, past thrift shops, craft shops, and antique stores without number. And still, after more than one hundred fifty years of progress, Belleville boasted more lawyers and chiropractors than sock monkeys per square block.

I drove around outside of town trying to retrace the route Artie took to The Wet Spot. I knew it wouldn’t be in any telephone directory or on any map. Finally, after getting lost a few times on the gravel roads, I gave up in frustration. I was beginning to believe the place didn’t exist, that it was a lunar mirage of a tavern, a trick of light and imagination seen only under a gibbous moon. And yet I panicked visualizing my kids there, Auntie Liz plying them with sodas, bar snacks, and video games while she waited for instructions.

The church was closed and locked. Even though there were no cars outside I still tried the door. Somehow I knew I couldn’t call Father Seraphim in on this emergency. It was a sign. This was my wilderness, and it was up to me to find the promised land.

By evening it had become unseasonably warm for February twenty-ninth—warm enough to sit outside in an overcoat without freezing. I sat alone in a park on a dry picnic table under a shelter and prayed for God to get us through this—to end this nightmare. I prayed for strength to forgive my enemies and turn them away from evil. Still I couldn’t speak their names in prayer. But God knew all their names. I asked him to destroy their evil plans before they came to fruition. And then a presence, in what I’d call a mosquito voice, uttered three strange yet familiar words into the ear of my soul:

You’re the man.

Taking that for as close as I’d ever gotten to divine inspiration, I jumped in my car and headed for Kokker’s estate.

 

 

Parked cars, mostly luxury vehicles but with a few clunkers mixed in to make things egalitarian, crowded both shoulders of the private lane to well away from the mansion. I managed to parallel park in a short space behind Artie’s hearse.

Someone had built a druid-style bonfire in the middle of Kokker’s Stonehenge. It seemed imprudent, even dangerous in the midst of a mostly evergreen forest. But fire wasn’t the danger I most feared as I crept through the woods, brushing past pine boughs as stealthily as possible, edging up to the clearing. Approaching as close as I dared, I knelt on a bed of dry, brown needles under cover of a tall spruce while I surveyed the action.

It looked like a pep rally at first. Everyone was there: Liz and some of her bar girls, Ramses and a few from his stable, and even Duane Benoit. From my vantage point, I could pick out Mark Kane the way you’ll never see him in any TV commercial. Coroner Ruggles and Judge O’Byrne were there representing county government. Some of the throng of others I thought I recognized from the orgy-reception in Kokker’s foyer the night of the dinner party. Cootie Tremayne stood warming himself near the fire like a hobo.

Now I could see the reason for the bonfire. Everybody was stark naked, crowded into a circle to keep warmed by the blaze. I spotted my Diane towering above and in the center of it all, almost unrecognizable with her head shaved and her body smeared head to toe in red ochre. Her feet had been tied together, her body trussed up in a rope arrangement loosely threaded through a pulley attached to a gibbet affair overhead, its base built into a circular stone altar. Although her feet were planted firmly on the altar, it looked as though she could be made to fly around like Peter Pan with one tug of the rope.

While I watched, clutching the dagger and plotting some kind of Robin Hood rescue, the crowd parted and Janis strode queenlike to the inner circle clad in a blood-red robe uncinctured and open in front. Kokker—also queenlike—the man I’d least like to see nude again, followed bob-bob-bobbin’ behind her wearing nothing but his birthday suit and a see-through silk scarflike affair over his shoulders and arms. Janis and Kokker ascended to the altar, where they stood one on either side of Diane. Janis carried a gleaming skull chalice the size of a loving cup. She raised one arm in triumphant greeting. The mob cheered. It seemed like some bizarro magic act, with Janis the magician and Kokker her lovely assistant.

Janis bent and set the chalice on a stump near the altar. She beckoned to the crowd. Moments later, three men approached and knelt around it. Soon the faces of the three contorted; as though in unison, they bowed their backs and strained forward. As soon as the first trio had finished, three new players rushed forward like a pit crew to take their places. While the crowd and I watched, five more turnovers knelt before the cup: a twenty-one-gun salute in all. Women came forward then and squatted one by one over the Jolly Roger chalice; hands on hips, each in turn donated her own sample to the recipe. Finally Ramses swaggered forward and, with a modicum of solemn effort, bestowed his own generous dollop. He grasped the brimming chalice in one massive hand and, with a courtier’s bow, offered it to Janis. She raised it like a toast to the cheering crowd, then passed it to Diane, who from her expression was unsure what was expected of her.

I stared like a man caught in a nightmare. My mind hadn’t been working right since the moment my wife had left me; it was as though she’d packed up my brain in a suitcase with her other things. I had been blind with panic since realizing my kids were gone. Now, for no apparent reason, crouched behind the spruce tree, gawking at my wife standing there naked and holding a tankard of unspeakable filth, I thought about seeing Artie’s hearse.

Artie’s hearse? It should have been locked down on the county impound lot. Its owner, falsely presumed dead, couldn’t risk arrest on outstanding warrants to claim it.

A powerful hand gripped my left shoulder and spun me around in mid-realization. I stared into the crystal-clear eyes of Artie Tremayne. He was packing his Browning, and I don’t mean a little book of poetry.

“Counselor! Trying to get a jump on the Christmas-tree rush before they put out all the picked-over shit?”

Before I could think up a suitably smartass reply, he lowered his voice to a menacing level and ordered, “Hands behind your head and interlace your fingers. Kick off your shoes and march your stocking feet double-time into that goddamn clearing. We take a dim view of peeping toms around here.”

The cold, wet ground saturated my socks before I’d gone two steps. Pine needles pricked at the soles of my feet. Artie trotted me down the sloping bank and three times around the perimeter of the circle like a Roman POW in the coliseum amid a cacophony of jeers and catcalls demanding that I “take it off.”

Janis’s voice sounded, rising above the crowd’s. Her broad grin looked absolutely vulpine by firelight.

“The honored guest’s hubby has crashed our party at last. Sergeant at arms, bring the prisoner forward where we can all get a better look at him. And I do mean a better look.”

The throng chanted even louder: “Get naked! Get naked! Get naked!” Artie prodded me between the shoulder blades with the automatic.

“It’s showtime, Counselor. What’re you waiting for, a little traveling music? Get up onstage and give ‘em what they want before they tear you apart.”

So I climbed onto the altar and, facing Diane holding the chalice, began disrobing. I lay my articles of clothing one by one onto the rough stone surface. Where was Hephzibah when I needed her? I spread my coat so that it covered most of the pentagram, feeling like the Polack in the old joke who stepped outside the chalk circle three times without his wife’s rapist noticing. Artie still pointed the pistol right at my heart.

By the time I’d stripped down to my shorts, I had a new appreciation for the demands of the ecdysiast profession and had resolved that, if I ever got us out of here alive, I’d never be caught dead in one of those places again.

“Don’t be shy, Ricky,” Janis urged. “Listen to Artie. Give the people what they want.”

“There’s something you don’t hear every day,” I told her. “Somebody saying ‘listen to Artie.’” But I turned to the howling spectators, peeled off my Fruit of the Looms, and let it dangle. The mob’s responsive roar nearly passed the pain threshold. I’ve been told I have a nice one, but corroboration is always appreciated. “Rick! Rick! Rick!” they shouted as one.

I turned again to Diane. It all brought me back to the scene by the hot tub that night at Kokker’s. Once again I was the last one to disrobe. Diane’s face remained impassive behind the thick plaster of dull red. With her shaved head and big monochromatic breasts in primitive bonfire light, she reminded me of a favorite well-fingered picture from National Geographic.

Kokker had bent at the waist—I didn’t envy the onlookers with a rear vantage point—and was rummaging through my jacket. He shouted “Eureka!” when he came up with the dagger. With a flourish, he handed it to Janis, saying, “This seals our bargain.”

If my shedding my shorts had stirred the congregation, the tender of the dagger whipped them into an absolute frenzy. Janis brandished the glinting knife aloft with both hands like the warrior queen she was, shouting, “Destiny has been put right tonight!”

Kokker began leading the crowd in what seemed a kind of demonic creed:

 

 

 

O mighty uncrowned unbowed head,

O Whore of Babylon, authoress of seduction,

O Demon Mother who bears the face of paradise,

Forsaker of Adam, thief and slayer of children,

Beguiler of bride and groom alike;

Turning away from paradise, you made its face your mask.

Fecund with a brood of demons,

Unslakable thirst for human blood;

Demiurge, Demon Mother,

Look upon us with your true face tonight.

 

 

 

“Cute,” I said, turning again to Diane, “they’ve written their own vows.” But then I noticed she was mouthing all the words with them.

They repeated their prayer three times before a gasp—unison as the chant—went up from the crowd. Janis’s face began to change again like that very morning in the Lilith cult cemetery. Only this time, the face was as beautiful as I’d ever seen: a distaff Lucifer before the fall.

“You have done well, Vercingetorix,” she said in the same soothing voice I’d probably heard in my bassinet. “You have arrived at a most wise decision. The decision to please oneself is truly the wisest of all.”

The crowd murmured agreement. I half-expected to hear an amen. Janis’s procreating hand darted forward with a pickpocket’s dexterity and fondled me. Alarmed, I glanced toward Diane, who continued to hold the filthy chalice like a supplicant in a trance. I looked imploringly into her eyes, their lids smeared and encrusted with the red earth of Eden, her pupils blue as the sixth morning sky.

“Look up to heaven, Diane,” I cried out to her. “Resist the Evil One!”

Janis’s betraying fingers had already caressed me to the beginnings of a response—that same provocative, molesting tickling I recognized from my childhood. Gazing directly into my eyes as though meeting a dare, Diane raised the chalice to her lips and drank. When she lowered it again, I saw her silvery mustache, a snail trail of men’s drippings superimposed on her mouth like lip gloss carelessly applied. She bore a little girl’s innocence even then, as though she were about to pipe up and say, All gone! Her compliance had to be the effect of drugs that Artie had undoubtedly loaded her with or the witches’ curse of the glittering ruby necklace—the only thing she still wore.

“Good girl,” Janis told Diane, taking the chalice from her and handing it to Kokker, who stood and held it, shifting from one foot to the other and breathing heavily. The entire throng, in fact, seemed eager for some anticipated deeper abomination.

“Shall I bestow my beauty mark?” the transfigured Janis inquired softly. Diane nodded like a sleepwalker.

“Very well, then.” Janis closed her eyes and began rubbing herself. The crowd fell silent with awe, watching the middle finger of Janis’s opposite hand grow like Pinocchio’s nose, a crazy digital erection. She wet the tip of it inside herself. I wasn’t the only one moaning when she withdrew it and touched it to Diane’s right breast like ringing a doorbell, at about eight o’clock below the right nipple.

Diane gave an abrupt, involuntary sigh. Where Janis had touched her, an unsightly mole the shape of a falling star instantly appeared like a signet ring’s mark in sealing wax. But had her soul’s doom been sealed as well?

“You have kept your bargain, Vercingetorix,” Janis said, her face liquid bronze and shining like the moon. “Now I shall keep mine. You and I shall wander the earth, sating ourselves on forbidden pleasures so exquisite they have been denied mere mortals since time before time. You have chosen well to forsake—as have I—the cursed bondage of marital servitude. Join me now. Your forgetting shall be as swift and final as the infliction of a punishment.”

“I’ll bet the resemblance won’t end there.”

My response seemed to astonish her. In her wounded pride, all she could come up with was, “What?”

“Is that that ‘soul-piercing wail of the banshee’ you mentioned this morning? Needs work.”

Janis had already recovered her composure. “Very well,” she intoned. “Because you have rejected my bargain, the talisman shall slake its thirst for another generation in your fallen Diane’s blood, bringing impossible wealth and success to the talisman’s soon-to-be restored owner: Doctor Kirk Kokker!”

Kokker began jumping up and down, clapping his hands and screaming like a woman. His utter lack of composure was worthy of a game show contestant.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I thought the deal you had with Kokker was your daughter for the knife.”

“The talisman has been our bait for every generation,” Janis replied, “our hook into you mortals’ souls. What use have I for a dagger? Yet each time I return for it, its owner begs me to use it once again to renew its power. Kokker has so implored me—look at him, oblivious to what I’m saying, rather like the first time. He is a score of years older yet not a moment wiser. By giving him Madeleine I lay my eggs in him. Her chrysalis shall feed on his dry carcass from within until she emerges triumphant after I am gone from this place. Gone without you at my side: your choice, not mine.”

Janis slipped behind Diane just as she had in the Running Head video and raised the dagger, saying, “Now behold the hidden spring of blood.” The bonfire flames seemed to rage higher, throwing a lurid light against the ramparts of Kokker’s phony Stonehenge. I had barely enough room to plunge my hand between Diane and Janis and grasp the necklace. Janis’s necklace.

The amulet burned in my palm like a hot coal. I yanked on it with all my strength, remembering Sandra. The chain broke.

Then I heard the real thing: the dispossessed banshee wail of ten thousand years of stolen life wrenched from its fleshly lair. Janis’s body seemed to wrinkle and sag like a lifetime picture album viewed at animation speed. Within an instant she became a wizened hag, dry and lifeless white hair lengthening before my eyes to cover her like a shroud, her fingernails extending to impossible lengths with stop-motion photography speed and chittering like insects against one another with the writhing of her papyrus-over-bone fingers. Finally her fingers became still. Putrefaction seized her then like a predator. We all witnessed the spectacle—an accelerated recapitulation of the way of all flesh. I won’t describe it any further except to say the Dracula flicks have no clue.

I picked up the knife from a puddle of waste oil. The black, fetid corpse liquor was all that was left of Janis Mezzanotte. With one swipe of the blade, I severed the rope that tethered my Diane to the gibbet. She stumbled forward, then stood there befuddled, wearing the rope like a tail. I yelled, “Run for it!”

Diane hesitated, staring at her reflection in the puddle of Janis’s remains. Realizing what I had left undone, I grabbed Diane’s amulet and gave another yank.

Diane’s mole caught fire in a hissing, bottle-rocket flameout. A creaking sound escaped her lips, followed by a taut groaning—that low, guttural rattle in the throat that means too much pain to scream. She tried to run but fell to the ground in agony. When she rose again I knew she had come to herself. She covered her breasts as fully as possible with one forearm, her genitals with the other. We looked at each other as though seeing ourselves naked for the first time.

“Ricky,” she whispered, “what happened?”

Artie stepped forward, still holding the pistol. I moved to shield Diane, brandishing the dagger at him like a ginsu knife. He laughed, then opened his other hand. In it were a quantity of white tablets and a vial containing clear liquid.

“Take two or three of these and call me in the morning,” he said. “Otherwise her fucking moneybags are coming right off, Counselor. There ain’t no third way. And hand over that goddamn toad-sticker before you hurt somebody.”

I looked at him warily, without moving.

“C’mon, man. Take these, you and your old lady, and mellow out. Mad’s watching your kids back at the mansion. She ain’t even gonna charge you for it this time.” He moved closer and muttered under his breath, “Just give Kokker his knife and get this party the fuck over with. Nobody’s in the mood for no human sacrifice tonight. Be kind of anticlimactic after the meltdown shit we already seen, you know?”

 

 

An annoying two-toned alarm clock going off in my ear. Or was it the doorbell? Flashing lights, sirens, and confusion. I must have fallen asleep again sitting up in the recliner with the TV on and had one of those dreams where I was the only one naked. Except that Diane was in the dream too, and she was as naked as I was, but for the barn-red paint all over her. The paramedics sure seemed to notice it. But it was when they noticed our four kids whimpering in the rear of Diane’s van that I really picked up on their disapproval.

Now I’m in the Lawyers’ Assistance Program—the one for attorney drunks and druggies—and the Department of Children and Family Services is so much a part of our lives we often feel like setting them a place at the dinner table. Fortunately, all the leading and suggestive videotaped interviews in the world couldn’t shake our kids from the truth: they hadn’t been molested, especially not by Mommy and Daddy. Besides, they’d all seen both of us naked before, though never unconscious in a van parked in traffic and facing the wrong direction on the Poplar Street Bridge.

The State of Illinois let me keep my law license but not my driver’s license. Go figure. I’m still working on completing the remaining eighteen-hundred forty-nine of my two thousand hours’ community service, which fits in nicely with my new position directing a legal aid agency specializing in child advocacy. Fortunately, Diane’s antique business is doing well enough to pay the mortgage for now.

Those late nights when the house is quiet and I can’t sleep, when Diane’s eyes have become narrow cat slits once more, I gaze into her sleeping paradise face and try to draw some grand philosophical principle from everything that has happened to us.

So far, this is the best I’ve been able to come up with. While it is undeniably true that evil can and often does wear a human face, I have witnessed the free-ranging power of bodiless evil, have looked into its awful countenance and shuddered at its voice. I’ll take the human face of evil any day.

The way I look at things now, we all co-exist in an uneasy symbiosis with evil in the world. Perhaps there’s a chess game going on between God and the devil. God knows He’s bound to win, but He hasn’t cleared the board yet and the devil may be enjoying the game so much that he’s not ready to concede. Until that final checkmate happens, my game plan is to stick to my own assigned square and avoid any sudden moves.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

 

 

 

Malachi Stone is a practicing attorney. He is the author of ten novels and RUDE SCRAWLS, a book of short stories. All are available online.

 

 

CONJURER’S OATH

DEAD MAN’S ACT

DEVIL’S TOLL

GREEDY AS THE GRAVE

HARD BREAK

HEARTBALM

OZARK BANSHEE

PRIVATE SHOWINGS

SHARP FORCE TRAUMA

WICKED KING DICK

and

RUDE SCRAWLS

 

 

CONNECT WITH ME ONLINE:

 

 

Facebook:

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Email: mailto:[email protected]

 

Be sure and listen to the FREE MP3 version of the first ten chapters of HEARTBALM performed by the author. Start here:

 

[+ http://archive.org/details/MalachiStoneHeartbalmChapterOne_AndNowaWordFromMySponsor+]

 


St. Agnes' Eve

Lawyers, drugs, sex and murder. A crank-addicted attorney caught up in multiple drug-fueled extramarital love affairs encounters a series of grisly mutilation killings going back at least two decades. The murderer leaves his signature with every corpse--a holy card bearing the same bloody fingerprint. Police identify the print. Trouble is, it belongs to a teenage girl who hadn't even been born at the time the first murder was committed. Thrill to the mystery and suspense of ST. AGNES' EVE!

  • ISBN: 9781311146793
  • Author: Malachi Stone
  • Published: 2015-11-25 16:20:21
  • Words: 93635
St. Agnes' Eve St. Agnes' Eve