Sunday, May 06, 2007

Radu-Part One Of A Novel By Patrick Kelley

PROLOGUE

At times, the prisoner just preferred to sit on the floor, his back against the corners of the wall, his knees propped up, sometimes stretched out straight. He tired of lying upon his thin cot. How long had it been since he had clean sheets? They were supposed to change the bedding every few days, but rarely did so. It had now been over a week. Nor had he received any communication with his friends on the outside, for well over four days.

Costenza had been to see him, and had prayed for him, had prayed with him. He trusted and loved this priest. But he feared for his safety and overall well-being because of it. The man had a family, a wife, sons and daughters, who themselves had given him many grandchildren. Now, one of them, a daughter, was dying, would probably not live out the week, and might in fact already be dead.

Now, he looked about him, and saw his friends. They all slept, like drunks. Or like babies. Two of them snored. How could they sleep so soundly at a time like this, he wondered? He himself hated to sleep. The last time he had slept soundly was the night after his friend the priest had been to see him. Afterwards he was exhausted, and dreamed a horribly disturbing dream, a dream where a strange beardless man in ancient style clothing, and with long, thick dark locks of hair, wrote something upon the walls of the outer court of the prison. The guards were standing around or otherwise going about their business, ignoring him, seemingly unaware of his presence.

He had approached the man cautiously, saying nothing while attempting to see just what he was doing. Suddenly the man turned with a strange, crazed smile on his face, and started cackling, snickering in a way that seemed itself almost obscene.

He looked upon the wall and the writings, horrified by what he saw. The man had an insane look in his bright green eyes and just laughed at his reaction. Then he saw a dead person, an extremely old woman upon the ground at the mans’ feet. She appeared to be an old gypsy woman. Beside her was an old metal trunk. It was open, and it somehow seemed as though the man had just stepped from inside it.

He turned away in horror. That was when he woke up in a sweat. By the time he had completely awakened, he had forgotten the words on the wall.

That had been four nights before and now it was another night. He had slept intermittently, and decided he would try to sleep again. He rose and went to his cot. It was not that late, perhaps he would finally sleep well before the morning. Still, he feared what he would see.

He could hear the man laughing, giggling, almost shaking with insane mirth as his eyes darted around. He would not look at the writings this time, for he would not be witness to such horrific expressions. He avoided glancing at the ancient dead gypsy woman on the ground. He turned and then he saw at the gate the figure of a man in a dark gray burlap robe, thick, and so long, it touched the ground, with a hood that covered his head. Yet, though it did not cover it, still he could not see his face, could see nothing but two red eyes that glowed like blazing embers. The figure stood there, while behind him he could still hear the man laughing as he wrote upon the wall.

“Those old bones won’t help you to heal”, a voice said. “Ground to a powder and sold for a meal”

He turned and looked once more, to see the abominations written on the wall-but now they were gone, erased, and the man stared at him for the first time with a look of pure, spiteful malice.

“You are too late”, he said. “You can’t stop it now. What will be, will be.”

He turned back to the shrouded figure, in anger reached out, and pulled back the hood. He saw the red-hot coals in his eye sockets, burning into him, and they revealed the face. However, the skin and flesh had been removed, had been scalped, leaving nothing but raw bloody muscle and bone. He awoke with a gasp, one that seemed loud to him, yet did not seem to disturb the sleep of his friends, his fellow prisoners. His heart beat rapidly for an instant, bringing with it a pain in his chest. But this quickly subsided, and he soon resumed his normal breathing, though still he was greatly shaken.

He had not returned to his bed at all, he was still there, sitting in the corner of the large cell, propped up against the wall. He put himself into a position of prayer and prayed earnestly. He began to perspire, most profusely, yet it was cold. It was autumn, there was no heat, and yet he burned at the same time with an intensity that seemed as if he were breaking a fever. He wiped his brow. The sweat poured out like drops, drops of sweat that seemed to be like blood.

Suddenly, he felt the presence of something else that seemed to engulf him, envelope him. He knew then that it would soon be the end for him. He had misread certain signs, had misinterpreted everything. He had received faulty intelligence and corrupt guidance. But the spirit that engulfed him now seemed to promise some degree of absolution. The poison that had infected him from the earliest age was one that had in the final years asserted itself, had strengthened and prospered under the care of his own arrogant pride, sustained and nurtured by flattery. He had himself destroyed the guiding spirit he had invited to dwell within himself, like a corrupt host who deceives an innocent guest, unaware and helpless before his treachery.

He had abdicated his responsibilities to the position he had earned, and aspired to become the object of the praise to that for which he was to have been to be the mere vessel. Now, he would pay the price for his blasphemies and abominations. He uttered a quick prayer for forgiveness.

“Forgive me, and if you please, I would prefer to not have to suffer what I have taken on myself. I will do it gladly just the same. What’s done is done.”

Then he cried silently, as he uttered yet another prayer to the Blessed Virgin and to the Crucified Lord. Then he wept loudly. He looked around. They all slept.

“Wake up”, he said to them, one at a time. “How can you sleep at a time like this?”

“What is this?” one of the men said in a half-awake daze. “What time is it, is it morning yet? God, I am exhausted.”

“So am I”, said another as he arose from his cot. “What is going on? It looks to be barely midnight. Let us sleep, we are all tired.”

“Well, you had best pull yourself together,” he told them. “You are men not children. Your snoring is tiresome, by the way, Petreus.”

“Corneliu, I do not feel well”, the one named Antonin said. “We have a long day ahead of us, can this not wait?”

“I fear we have no days ahead of us”, Corneliu replied, and at once immediately regretted saying it. Before anyone answered him, he noted the sounds of footsteps. They could be easily distinguished from down the corridors of the prison, the footsteps of the guards, drawing ever closer. They soon drew up to the bars of the cell, oblivious to the grunts and groans of the varied prisoners whose slumbers were disturbed by the echoes of the heavy footfalls on the concrete floors. Corneliu found himself curiously sensitive to their presence.

There were all kinds of prisoners here, from rapists and murderers, to pickpockets and burglars. The ones such as him and his fellows, and other rebels and insurgents, were undifferentiated from the remainder of the lot. Even the communists seemed no more or less well regarded, though they too kept together as a group. It was the one advantage of the prisons being so crowded. They were obliged to put three, four, five, and more men in a cell. It made sense to allow them to remain with their confederates. It kept trouble to a minimum, as few wanted to risk confinement in a cell with groups of common criminals.

By now, all in his cell were awake, and had risen, as Vasiliu, the chief night guard, stood at the door, flanked by two others, with perhaps three or more behind them and off to the side, all of whom soon made way for a new arrival. Corneliu knew him well; it was Volescu, who now regarded him dispassionately, yet with a smile, a disturbingly polite one.

“I am glad to see you are well, Corneliu”, he said. “I have thought much of you the past few months.”

“I bet you have”, he replied. “I take it Antonescu has sent you to insure they kill the right man. You may tell him for me that when his day comes, whenever that might be, I will be standing at the side of his deathbed.”

“And I, Corneliu”, Volescu said. “Will you appear to me in my last hour?”

“I fear there will be no room for me”, he replied. “Let us stop this pretension of cordiality, if you please, I find it sickening.”

“You are a fucking traitor”, said Petreus. “What I would not give to get my hands on you.”

The others looked at him with scorn, but said nothing. They were fearful, Petreus as much as anyone. Antonin spat upon the floor and turned his back on the man who had at one time been their confederate, their supposed friend, before then going over to a rival group. He then helped to set up an ambush, which resulted in the death of scores of their followers and supporters.

“I am not a traitor”, Volescu replied. “My loyalties are to none but Romania”

Suddenly one of the group lunged through the cell, so quickly he almost grabbed Volescu by the throat, but Volescu jumped back just in time.

“You are a fucking coward and a traitor”, said Ion, the youngest of the group. “How much was your loyalty to Romania worth?”

“How is that pretty wife of yours, Ion?”, Volescu said with a sneer. “Have you heard from her lately? Perhaps I should pay her a call, to see how she is. Of course, I am certain she will find a way to see to the welfare of those lovely daughters of yours, and that precious little boy. Might I give her a message on your behalf?”

“You stay away from them”, Ion warned him helplessly, the thought of this man drawing near his family obviously repugnant.

“Ignore him, Ion”, Corneliu advised him.

“Very well, enough of this! We have orders to transfer you, that is all this is", the guard Vasiliu interjected. “This facility is soon to be even more crowded than it is, so we are sending you to a place of greater convenience.”

“Convenience for whom, might I ask?” inquired Corneliu, who had by now resigned himself to the fate he was sure awaited him outside the cell. No prisoner transfers ever took place in the middle of the night, certainly not during dangerous times such as these.

“For yourself, of course”, the guard replied. “The place you are going I think you will see is far more suitable to you and your friends. Well, at least to you, Corneliu, seeing as to your status.”

The sinister smile of the other guards did not escape Corneliu’s notice, as one of them inserted the key in the cell door and began to open it it. Corneliu noticed at this point the fear on the face of his friends. Ion in particular looked to be on the verge of collapse. He talked constantly of his wife, his son and daughters, and worried for their safety, though he heard from them regularly. Corneliu would tell him not to worry, that they would be well. This always seemed to comfort Ion, but only for a time.

Tonight, as the guards ushered them out into the courtyard, he whispered to Ion, who now sobbed loudly, to be strong.

“I worry for my wife and children”, he said. “What will become of them?”

“They will be well”, Corneliu told him. “They will be looked after. One day, you will be with them again. You have to believe that. Do you?”

Ion told him he believed him, and as Corneliu told him to keep his faith and think of them in his prayers, he looked over toward the wall. But there was no writing, no body, no sinister, crazed cackling little man. It was a cold, clear November night. He looked up toward the stars as he heard the front gates of the prison swing open. He heard the sound of a truck approaching from somewhere up the road, and briefly held hope that the guard was telling the truth; that they were to be transferred to a new, less crowded facility. He shook off this last hope, however, as the same guard told them to step outside the gate. As they stepped out, he could hear a couple of the guards cocking their rifles from behind the group, and wondered if the rest could hear it. He wanted to plead for their lives, but he knew that would be useless. It would also be selfish and cruel. It would do no more than incite even greater distress.

One of them stepped up now to his side, and tugged at his sleeve.

“What is this, Corneliu?”, he asked. “What are we doing here?’

“I am not really certain, Sylveu”, Corneliu replied as the oncoming headlights of the approaching truck illuminated the men. “But it looks as though we are about to escape.”




I.

Grace had been under surveillance for a good fifteen minutes before she finally took the stage, and when she finally did, it was to the obvious disdain of the crowd. She just did not have it any more. Nine years is a lot of time for an exotic dancer, and though three years off work made her feel greatly rejuvenated, she was nowhere near the level of confidence or bad girl sensuality she had exuded as a struggling college sophomore trying to pay her way through college. She managed to do so, and then on to her masters in journalism. It was a full life, a satisfying life, before the illusion ended.

She was back now at The Red Lion Lounge, but it was not the same. The place had changed hands twice since she had started, but it was all the same. Somewhere along the way, she had become a drunk and an addict, and found herself slowly gravitating to prostitution. She was arrested, twice, and then came the third bust that lead to a stint in rehab. Still, she had to go back.

Through all of this, along with two rapes and one brutal beating, she somehow managed to graduate, not with the honors she had initially envisioned, but still with a 2.7 average. She had a lot of help getting into graduate school, which she didn’t really qualify for, but one of her professors was also one of her clients. He was also the one who had beaten the living shit out of her. She declined to press charges, hell, she did not know who the guy was, could barely remember what he looked like.

He was dark skinned, she said, and seemed to be Hispanic. Not a fifty seven year old graying, long haired though balding hippy going through a divorce and a contentious property settlement with a propensity for overdoing vodka and water and shouting at the top of his lungs about some whore named Marilyn who was not his wife.

Graduate school was a breeze. But she was too old for this shit now, and it showed. The crowd just was not into her. The only way she could make it here always left a rotten taste in her mouth. She was done.

After it was all over, Abigail the new owner wanted to see her, and she knew it was coming. She listened, as the woman seemed to get some degree of satisfaction out of telling her she just didn’t think she was cut out for this. Abigail of course was the owner on paper, and did not look to be the type you would ordinarily think of as owning an exotic dance lounge. She looked more like a school marm, actually, like she might be one of the younger girls mothers, having just found out what her daughter was doing and coming into the place ready to rip into the first customer that she caught looking at her. God help him if she caught him slipping something down her thong.

Grace reminded Abby, as she preferred to be known, that she had initially wanted a job as a bartender. True, she did not exactly have a diploma in mixology, but she could mix them up with the best of them. She even knew how to add just the right amount to the drinks of the girls when a customer ordered them, so that if the guy sipped the drink he would not be able to tell that it contained one third the alcohol of a regular mixed drink, and one fourth the amount that was in his. You just added a dash of water to the juice or soft drink before you added the liquor, then you added a dash of rum flavor, in some cases brandy flavor. They rarely tested the drinks anyway, and most of the time they did they were already too far gone to tell the difference. It was guaranteed to work on the customers’ suspicions, and then his wallet.

Abby was not interested; in fact, she seemed to view Grace with suspicion. Word had gotten around. Grace was poison in the business now. Why, then, this initial facade? Why not just come out and say, ‘listen, bitch, we don’t have any intention of ending up under an investigative journalists by-line, so beat it.”

Maybe Grace was just paranoid.

Whatever the case, Grace needed money, and she needed a drink, so she took the fifty dollars Abby generously gave her and hit the bar. She only had to buy one. The customers started to view her in a different light, now that she had descended to their level. They were like wolves. The seemingly nicer ones, she had long ago learned, simply had not ever been able to rise to dominance in the pack. They were the nice guys, the friends you could talk to, could confide in, while they waited for a turn that seldom came their way. She had no use for them.

The drinks started coming. She would just have to deal with the taste one more night.


II.

Marlowe Krovell had a bone to pick with his uncle Bradley, several in fact. He was positive his uncle had murdered his parents, and had tried to poison Marlowe himself. He would have to pay for that. True, his parents were pricks and had asked for it. Marlowe himself had recovered from the poisoning, but realized he needed his uncle to run the place, the business end and day-to-day operations. He was not sure what he was going to do. He would have to give it a lot of thought.

Marlowe handled the artistic aspects of the family owned, century old business of Krovell’s Funeral Home. Since 1904, as it said above the front door on the sign, the Krovell family had been burying bodies in the Baltimore area with the dignity and respect incumbent on and expected of all proprietors of the funerary business. Entombed within the mausoleum, which lead from the basement of the old establishment, were a good many of his family and ancestors. Marlowe too would end up there, probably the last of the line.

His parents of course were there as well, their restless spirits waiting for the day they could wreak eternal vengeance on Brad Marlowe, his mothers own brother, who had murdered them in what was set up to look like a murder suicide. Marlowe had supposedly been an intended target as well, but as he lay recovering in the hospital, he knew better. He knew what his uncle had done, and he knew what he had to do. He rose from the dead.

That night when he arrived home, he never expected what happened next. His uncle was there in the basement, straddling the dead body of Mary Evans, a young fourteen-year-old former classmates’ younger sister. As it turned out, she had died earlier that night, by drowning. He was caressing her, kissing her, fondling her breasts, fully developed and large for a fourteen-year-old girl. Marlowe was sickened and fascinated by the spectacle, and quickly procured a camera from upstairs, quietly as possible sneaking back downstairs as his uncle, groaning, was engaging in an act of cunnilingus on the dead girls’ body.

He took picture after picture, saving the last two shots on the roll of film for when Brad eventually mounted the dead girl and began engaging in actual intercourse. Brad never knew he was there, and Marlowe decided it would not be safe if he did know it. He had already tried to kill him once, actually had murdered his own parents. If he saw him there now, and knew what Marlowe had witnessed, he was done for. Of course, he could have killed him, as he had planned when he left the hospital surreptitiously. However, he was beginning to think a little more clearly now. Perhaps it was meant for him to see what had happened this night. There was a purpose to it, as in all creation.

He knew he would have to be careful, and so he slipped into the house of an older couple that lived just four blocks away. He knew they would be sound asleep by that time of the night, old people slept through the night, he reasoned, either naturally or with the aid of a pharmaceutical agent, but he reasoned they needed all the sleep they could get.

He had to kill them, of course, but he was merciful. The old man never woke up and barely made a sound when Marlowe put the pillow over his face and pressed hard. He was dead in just over a minute. The old woman never woke up through all that, and he finished her off almost as easily, despite the fact that she, though seemingly more frail, put up a bit more of a struggle.

Surprisingly, Marlowe cried. Why, he did not know. He had been around death all his life. He was born and raised constantly surrounded by dead bodies. By the time he was ten, he was more comfortable around the living than he was the dead. This was different, however, much different than he had expected. He had thought himself beyond this kind of emotion ever since the time his father forced him to practice embalming, at the age of twelve, on the girl who had been the first he had ever experienced any kind of romantic feeling for. She had died in an automobile accident, thrown from the families’ car after it had gone off the road when it hydroplaned in the middle of one of the worse storms in more than twenty years. She was broken and battered beyond recognition.

He was distraught, but his father had demanded that Marlowe assist him and his uncle in preparing the body for viewing. He refused at first, but his father insisted, while his uncle, strangely, had tried to intervene on Marlowe’s behalf. In the end, his father had won out. His mother had at first stayed out of it, and then sided with his father, which was as always the deciding factor

It took hours, and Marlowe had done most of the work, while his father stood over him and behind him, guiding him in the application of the make-up which hid the dark bruises, the suturing of torn flesh and muscles, the suctioning of congealed blood, and the insertion of the formaldehyde formula. It seemed to take forever, in fact, and Marlowe stifled somehow his dissenting nerves and emotions and controlled the tremors in his hands, though his father at irregular intervals had to intervene and redo in particular one set of facial sutures that seemed to leave too much of a protrusion. Strangely, this irritated Marlowe. He actually resented his fathers’ interference by now.

The ribs were all badly broken, her pelvis pulverized in certain spots. All of these bones, and a good many others, Marlowe painstakingly reset. Though a great lot of this was unnecessary, Marlowe insisted upon it. After three hours, he had all but taken charge of the procedure. He wanted to insure the body would for as long as possible retain the integrity of its normal appearance, for longer than just for sake of public viewing.

Marlowe examined the vagina, which seemed to be in good condition. In fact, it seemed to be, strangely, as Marlowe had always envisioned it. He knew he should not stare, but he could not help it. He found himself becoming aroused, but it was not through lust. He never experienced this feeling with the body of another client, either before this or afterwards. This girl after all was special. Marlowe was at first forced to do this, but now felt honored that he would be permitted this opportunity to perform this necessary and even vital service to this one girl, the last she would ever receive, having desired her for so long.

This was not a typical girl either. This was a virgin, had never nor ever would experience sexual pleasure with a boy, with a man. That made the experience that much more intimate, and this was not lost on Marlowe.

By the time he was finished, after more than seven hours of intense work, he was satisfied. He was exhausted. He felt emotionally drained. When offered a break, he refused, other than the three or four times his father had intervened to make slight corrections that were necessary. At these times, Marlowe relinquished control reluctantly, and truthfully, it did provide him welcome and needed breaks. Still, he resumed his work without hesitation, to his father’s obvious surprise. He almost seemed to be impressed, in fact. Marlowe had never confided in his father as to his feelings for Linda Belamy. Yet, as he looked at the finished product of his work, he understood that he had expressed those feelings in a way that showed forth like the work of any dedicated sculptor or artist.

His parents were right, after all. The preparation of a dead body was the ultimate form of art.

Left alone with her for a few minutes, he wanted to cry, and he wanted to run, to leave there and never come back. At the same time, he could not take his eyes off her. He told her he was sorry.

This had been the first time one responded to him. It had happened a few times since then. More often than not, they seemed to be unaware of their condition. In some cases, they seemed not even to know who they were. They would express fear, and in some cases would moan in pain and discomfort.

Linda just stared, in obvious terror, pain, and profound sadness. He felt all this, and was riveted on her dead yet living gaze. She moved her mouth to speak, but no words came forth at first, but then she mouthed the words, “please-help me”.

Marlowe realized something then. She did not know who he was, at first. Even when it finally seemed she recognized him, she acted as though she barely knew him. She seemed to regard him with a sense of fear, and worse, of revulsion.

“Please, leave me alone,” she pleaded. “Don’t touch me anymore”.

Then Uncle Brad came back downstairs and said, “awright kid, you can go on now, I’ll finish up here.”

There was nothing to do, though, it was all done, everything was put up, but when he told his uncle this he just told him to beat it. Reluctantly, he left, and now, after all this time, Marlowe understood the strange noises emanating from the basement that night. Why had Linda not told him? She came to him often enough, crying, moaning, and sometimes shrieking, but seemingly unable to communicate otherwise.

Perhaps she was just too embarrassed to tell him what her uncle had done to her that night.

Then, two years ago, finally, she just stopped coming. He missed her, wanted to see her, but she had, he supposed, moved on. After awhile, he too thought about her less and less. This night, however, he remembered, as he developed the film in the old couples makeshift darkroom. He then was careful to clean up before he left with the fruits of his labors. The old couple watched him balefully, but strangely enough, never said a word, not even to ask why. Surely, they already knew.

The following morning Marlowe walked into the front room, which served as the viewing area of the funeral home. There was Brad, looking at him uneasily. Mary was still down in the basement. Brad was not yet finished with her. He welcomed him back with a hug that made Marlowe cringe. Brad told him that everything would be fine. He looked around him to see Mary smiling a sad, knowing smile, and then she was suddenly gone.

“I heard Mary Evans died last night”, Marlowe said.

Brad looked at him as though in surprise that he would even have the death of this girl on his mind, after all he had been through.

“Yeah, she went out swimming late last night and she was high or something and may have had a seizure” Brad explained. “She was in the pool for an hour or more before they found her. You know her?”

“Not well”, Marlowe said. “Not until last night.”

Brad seemed to shrug this off, possibly as the ramblings of a person yet in a state of shock and grief. Yet no one ever knew exactly how close was the connection, which Marlowe shared with the realm of the dead. Sometimes he would lay awake at night and they would all be standing around him, more of them than he could count, never saying a word, seeming, for the most part, to be actually unaware of him, just standing. Waiting, but for what?

“I wonder if the seizure might have had something to do with the syphilis.” Marlowe mused. Brad was obviously too horrified at this to notice the gleam in Marlowe’s eyes, for he suddenly turned.

“She had syphilis?” he said.

“Yeah, she screwed a lot of guys, anybody that wanted her really. I was talking to Marty, not too long ago. He called me at the hospital, in fact, just the other day. Evidently, she got sick in school, and the school doctor told her and her counselor. They told her parents.”

“So, did they give her a shot or something?” Brad asked.

“Yeah, but they said she had it so bad that it would take a couple of weeks worth of treatments before it would be completely gone. I guess she was really ate up with it.”

Brad was beside himself and Marlowe was enjoying this thoroughly. There was just enough evidence to point to syphilis. Mary, though not really a whore was not a virgin either, in fact she had a boyfriend with whom she had been sexually active on an irregular basis. In fact, she had been upset the night she drowned over a stupid argument, one they had the day before.
Someone had started the rumor that Mary was indeed a whore, and that she indeed had syphilis, but another girl with whom Mary was always fighting started this.

Also, she had the unfortunate tendency to acquire rashes on her thighs and stomach, sometimes all over her body, that Brad now might assume would indeed verify that she was “ate up with it”.

Marlowe took a great deal of satisfaction in Brad’s discomfort. He looked more than worried. He looked sick. For the entire next two hours, no mention was made of his stay in the hospital, of his parents’ demise, of anything. Brad went upstairs, took a shower, then after dressing told Marlowe he was going out for a while.

“I just need to get out of here for an hour or two”, he explained. “Place is getting to me.”

With that, he left, and Marlowe ordered pizza. He was not about to eat anything in the house.




III.

It only took one to make Grace sick, but it took seven that night to get the money she needed. They lined up, one behind the other. The black guy was the worse. Grace thought he was never going to stop cumming in her mouth, and like all of them, he insisted that she take it all, that she swallow every single drop. Why? What is the big deal about swallowing with these men, she always wondered. Why do they seem to think it is such a big damn insult if you spit it out? They had to know how nasty the taste was. Sickening! Especially at twenty dollars a head, which was cheap but this was tonight the best she could do. She had to stay competitive.

There always seemed to be at least one asshole in any group of men that brought out the worse in all the rest. This time it was some salesman named Markey who lit the fuse.

“Hey bitch, we ain’t through with you yet”, he said. “My cock is getting hard again, that means you got some more work to do. I hope that cunt’s ready for a workout, ‘cos it’s gitting’ one.”

“I’m in,” said the little dick of the bunch. Why was there always one in the bunch you just had to try your hardest to keep from laughing at? You wanted to say something but knew you damned well better not. One time, two guys fucked her and one of them had the smallest prick she had ever seen on anybody, and she made the mistake of asking the other why he brought his little boy along. She got off lucky that time with nothing but a cussing from the other man. The guy with the little dick just got red faced and fought back tears, then left.

This guy, with the absurdly unlikely name of Brett, was not quite as small, but still well under five inches, hard at that. He strolled up to the front of the bunch.

“Don’t you think we should get our money’s worth?” he demanded.

She could not keep her eyes off his little dick.

“Oh, I don’t guess it could hurt,” she said.

The last thing Grace remembered was hitting the floor.




IV.

Brad Marlowe was anxiously trying to convince the people in the emergency room that he was in desperate need of a blood test. He had been feeling sick, he declared, and wondered if somehow he too had gotten a dose of the same poison that had been responsible for the deaths of his beloved sister and brother-in-law, and that had almost killed his nephew, now his only surviving relative.

Unfortunately, it was a very busy night. There were two stabbings and a gunshot wound. One old woman had come down with a stroke. There was also a virus going around, which could account for many of the symptoms he described. Since he did not really seem to be noticeably ill, he would have to wait in line.

He was starting to get really pissed off, but mainly afraid. He knew that if he did indeed contract syphilis, he would be expected to give an account of who he had contracted it from, and he did not know what to say. He could of course say he just picked it up from a one-night stand, a woman he could not really remember that well, because he was drunk at the time, but Brad was an awful liar when it came to things like that. They would question him as to where he met the woman, where they had gone, and they would want to know the time. After all, syphilis could sometimes manifest in epidemic proportions within a given population, and was something usually taken quite seriously.

Brad understood that he could not very well say, “Well, I don’t think you have to worry about this particular woman giving it to anybody else”, and expect that to be that. What was he going to say?

He was standing near the door in a state of growing anxiety when the badly beaten, barely conscious woman arrived on a stretcher. He could tell she was a very attractive woman, but from the way she was dressed, possibly a prostitute, or maybe an exotic dancer. She looked almost like a Goth, actually, though she seemed to be too old for that. She looked to be in her late twenties, maybe older. Some fucking people never grow up, he mused.

There was a cop, probably pulling guard duty at the hospital, writing information down on a pad of paper as he questioned her. Brad heard him tell her she was lucky to be alive. He heard him repeat the woman’s’ name-Grace Rodescu. Great, a fucking Romanian, he thought. Brad realized that, if this woman were what he thought she was, and was here for the reasons he was sure she was here for, they would probably give her an injection of antibiotics. The cop eventually wandered away, yet he still was hanging around as Grace eventually pulled herself up, seeming desperately to want to get out of there. She was probably in dire need of cash. Probably an addict, maybe behind in her rent as well, or in need of help with other bills.

Soon, the cop had other matters that demanded his attention. Another rape victim, but this one seemed to be a young college girl, not badly beaten as Grace Rodescu, but a little bruised, her clothes torn. She was hysterical. It was getting daylight now in this early morning, and an elderly couple arrived, both of them dead. Both seemingly suffocated in their sleep, probably with a pillow. Their son had discovered them when he stopped on his way to work to check on them. He was distraught as he answered the questions of the cop, who was obviously looking at the son as a potential person of interest.

With the cops’ attention temporarily diverted, at least, from Grace, whom he probably had by now all but forgotten about, Brad approached her, telling her he seemed to know her from somewhere. Grace laughed.

“I never thought I would hear that in a place like this”, she said.

“Well, I thought you looked like a dancer”, Brad lied, though this was of course an easy enough assumption to make, and sure enough, Grace responded that she was indeed a dancer, though she had been out of work for some time.

“Trying to get back in the game”, she said, “but I guess I joined in with the wrong players.”

“I thought you looked familiar”, he said, then rattled off the names of some places that he claimed to go, which in reality he had merely only heard of. The Red Lion Lounge was the third guess, but as he intimated that he had only been there a few times, the last time being a few months ago, Grace knew he couldn’t have known her from there. In fact, Grace was almost positive this man was lying to her. He acted as if he actually had never been inside an exotic dance lounge, and wouldn’t know what to do if he found himself in one. But she played along.

He could not name any of the girls, and the descriptions that he gave were vague. His favorite drink was beer. He just liked to go in and drink, watch the show for a few minutes, and then leave. Of course, he was lying; no one just went in to an exotic dance lounge, drunk a beer or two and just stayed for a few minutes, and then just left- certainly not on a regular basis. He was lying his ass off, and almost seemed to be desperate.

“Do you know that great big long rectangular table in the middle of The Red Lion?”, she asked. “I dance on that all the time now”.

He said he knew it and had seen girls dancing there and of course, there was no such table at The Red Lion. Who was this guy? He had to be trying to pick her up, as incredible as it seemed. Here she was, bruised, bloody, and hurting like hell after getting the beating of her life. She probably had some broken bones, definitely some broken ribs-and this jackass wanted to fuck her. The only thing was, he did not seem to be the least bit attracted to her. In fact, she was almost sure he seemed repulsed by her.

She asked him what he was doing here, and he repeated the story he had told the attendant aid, and it suddenly made sense. He had syphilis, or some other disease, and was looking for somebody to point to. Probably a child molester, or rapist, and feared the consequences of the truth if the origins of his disease became known. The Baltimore Health Department was pretty thorough in investigating any outbreaks of STD’s. She of all people knew this very well.

She knew something else very well. She needed money, bad. She had left the bar with forty-two dollars, and now that was gone. One of the men she had gone with to the seedy hotel room where she had almost gotten beat half to death, as a parting shot took what little money she had. She had to come up with some.

“I sure wish I had some money”, she said. “I would fuck anything right now for-oh, I don’t know- how much money you got?”

“Hundred dollars all right?” he asked with a shrug, and she laughed, a forced laugh. She would ordinarily be willing to tongue wipe this guys ass for one hundred dollars, but now she knew she could potentially get much more than that if she played it right.

“Well, how much do you want?” he asked.

“Hey baby, I’m a thousand dollar hooker, you know?” she said. He almost choked when she said this, and she thought that might have been going a bit far, but she held firm. To her surprise, he agreed.

“Come on, let’s get it over with”, he said.

They got a room, and to her surprise, he demanded that she take a cold shower. That had to be the most unusual request she had ever gotten, but she acceded to it. It was the first time she had ever showered in nothing but cold water and it felt horrible, even painful. Her entire body ached, was wracked in pain, and this made her pain that much more intense.

But what came next really took her by surprise.

“Just lay there and don’t move, don’t breathe, don’t say a word”, he commanded. “Just kind of stare out into space, or you can close your eyes if you want. But just lay as still as possible. And please-try not to sweat.”

Was this guy for real? Evidently, he was. He looked like he was disgusted the whole time he was on her, and he started performing oral sex on her. She was getting wet, and he stopped. He was gagging. Then, he started wiping her pussy off, and then started again. She was afraid he was going to vomit on her, but he stopped, and went to the bathroom, promising he would be back. When he did so, he just got on her, after wiping her dry again, and started fucking her. She was surprised that he had somewhat of a semi-hard on, and it suddenly occurred to her, he was not in the bathroom getting sick. He was masturbating almost to the point of orgasm. He ejaculated in just over a minute after entering her.

It was the strangest one thousand dollars she had ever made, and the hardest she had ever made in any amount at one time. She was still in pain through out all this. Her ribs were killing her and she was still bruised and sore from the previous beating. Overall, she was very lucky that he did not really take that long. She had to return to the hospital, and frankly, she did not give a damn whether Brad Marlowe went with her or not. As they stood outside the hotel room and waited on the cab to take them back to the DC General Emergency Room, she could not help but to nevertheless be curious about this strange, pudgy little man. He was probably a schoolteacher or youth minister of some type desperate to provide a relatively socially acceptable cover for the contraction of whatever disease he had now doubtless given to Grace, who could not afford to worry about that for now.

“What do you do for a living?” she asked nonchalantly. Somebody willing and desperate enough to put out one thousand dollars to perform an act that he obviously found repugnant, well, that kind of person she really wanted to know. Grace had blackmail on her mind. She was an investigative journalist, after all, and she was sure it would be relatively easy to look into this man’s background and uncover something he would really pay through the nose to keep secret.

“I’m a mortician”, he said. “Please don’t ask me how business is.”

So THAT was the answer. Grace was almost thunderstruck, and more. She was both disgusted and horrified, an emotion she had not felt since-but no, even this was not that bad. This was just sick, but it was sick in, now that she thought about it, an almost funny way.

“Yeah, I know, business is dead these days, huh?” The son of a bitch, she thought. Of course, that explained it all, the cold shower, the dislike of human bodily fluids, and the insistence on quiet, stillness-dryness.

“It’s no joke”, Brad said. “We’ve been in the process of temporarily closing, due to two deaths in the family, and we’ve had to transfer most of our business elsewhere, temporarily. After a couple of days, we’ll be completely closed. It will be a couple of weeks before we open back up, at least. Maybe even a month or two”

“Yeah, I can see where that might be a long time to go without sex when you’re used to having it on a regular basis”, Grace said.

He looked like a deer caught in the proverbial headlights when she said this, but she pretended not to notice the obvious discomfort. He said nothing, and she dropped it at that-for now. Soon, the cab arrived, and they made it back to the hospital, neither saying a word. When they made it back in the emergency room, she took him by the arm.

“Thanks for an interesting experience”, she said. “Oh, and by the way. As somebody who has some experience with these kinds of things, I thought you should know-venereal disease is transmitted by way of vaginal or seminal fluids. If it turns out you do have it, I can pretty much guarantee you got it from me.”





V.

“Trade Unionism was a forerunner to the philosophy of Socialism in the same way mercantilism was to that of laissez fire capitalism”, Sierra repeated to herself as the vocals of Marilyn Manson blared through the blasting metal rhythms and riffs of the cars stereo speakers woofers and tweeters. Yet, despite her concerted effort to dwell on the words of Professor Farmer (he was such an obvious stud, shit!), she could have swore she heard a scream for the first time in the background. Now what did that mean?

She started practicing her air guitar virtuosity, and she screamed out. It needed to be louder, she decided.

According to Farmer, the influence of the two conflicting philosophies in most developed countries contributed to the development of regulated capitalism. However, it was a stressful balance that had to be constantly maintained with a slight advantage going one way or the other, depending on the stress of any current given situation, sort of like the stress of Farmers cock straining against his pants made her want to balance his balls on-well her lower lip, she guessed.

She laughed at the absurdity of this image, felt the makings of a killer song there, but she would have to make the lyrics and title suitably obscure. The Farmers Daughter, perhaps. Yeah, The Mocktones needed a new song anyway. Their material was getting old and stale. They needed something fresh, just as she needed to be able to scream louder without straining her voice. So the bands critics, and especially hers, had said.

“Keep that damn thing down we got to be ready to rock out in a few minutes”, Milo ordered.

“Shit there ain’t nobody around here for miles”, she said, “what’s the big deal?”

“Just keep it down awright?” he insisted. “It ain’t me, it’s Joseph, he said cut it.”

So she cut it, with a scowl, as Milo made it back to the house. The old couple, tied up in their chairs, were both crying, and begging not to be hurt. Joseph was laughing at them, enjoying the moment of inspired fear he commanded.

“Come on up here, Spanky”, he ordered the youngest of the pack of six that gathered around. “So what do you say, we let them live? Hey, they are your mommy and daddy.”

“They ain’t jack shit to me”, the cute, bubbly blonde girl replied with a voice dripping in sheer hatred that made even Joseph wince.

“Wow”, he said, “That’s cold. These kids these days, I guess their folks just don’t raise them like they used to.”

“Debbie, please, I’m begging you,” the woman said. “We always wanted what was best for you, you’re our daughter, and we love you. Don’t do something that’s going to ruin your life forever, there’s no turning back-“

“For God’s sake Mildred, don’t you get it?”, the man said. “It’s done; she’s been planning this for no telling how long. I ain’t surprised and I ain’t going to sit here any more and beg these punks to spare us, so they can get that much more pleasure out of what they’re going to do anyway no matter what we say. You little pieces of shit can go to hell and take that little bitch right with you.”

However, he was not looking at any of them. He could never meet his daughter gaze. He was more afraid even than his wife. He had been afraid of Debbie since the time she turned eleven, and he realized she just was not the same daughter he had raised and loved. Something had changed her, but he never knew what it was, and did not understand it, nor did he intend to try. The spiked hair, the constantly changing colors, the black clothes and multiple body piercings. He had fathered a walking freak show, complete with a tattoo on her naked back that said in big purplish letters SATAN ROCKS.

She had come home after more than three months away, at only now sixteen. Her birthday and here she came home, with this boy, this Milo. Her boyfriend, she wanted them to meet him, and him they. He had awakened to the frantic whisperings of Mildred and got out of bed to be greeted by the site of his demonic daughter and her obviously drug addled boyfriend, who actually looked to be old enough to be charged with statutory rape, or contributing to the delinquency of a minor, at least.

He started in on them, while Mildred skulked away in the background, but then the door flung open and there they were, the one named Joseph with a gun pointed right at them. Now, there they were captive audiences as their daughter, their once sweet, innocent, naïve daughter, prepared for her birthday. Her sweet sixteen party.

The other two girls looked to be a few years older than she was, though still young, maybe in their early twenties or late teens. He wondered absently if they had gone through this same thing with their parents. They seemed casual, nonchalant, as though they were milling about at some inconsequential charity ball gossiping about who had the biggest cocks and were the most eligible bachelors, or eligible otherwise.

The other boy was named “Rhino”, short and stocky and thick necked, and looked to be about as stupid as one. He had so far not said a word aside from a couple of unintelligible grunts. He thought there was another out in the car, but he wasn’t sure. He thought he’d heard Joseph tell Milo to “make sure that damn thing is turned down”.

Nevertheless, this was Debbie’s coming out party.

“If you eat my pussy daddy you might live a while longer. I might not even kill you at all. I’ll even let you fuck me if you want to. I know you’ve always wanted to. Besides, it’s only fair. After all, mommy is about to get fucked by three men, right in front of you.”

“Just don’t expect me to fuck the old craggy faced bastard”, one of the girls said. “I’d rather suck a dogs’ dick.”

He ignored this taunt from the girl who, he had noticed earlier, had a shaved head and what seemed to be a tattoo of a moustache, with another adjoining one of a goatee adorning her chin. The other girl looked normal by comparison, despite the presence of piercings that went in a curved line along her right cheek by the ears, and a swath of cotton candy pink at the top of her spiked hair.

“Probably wouldn’t be a lot of difference”, she said with a laugh, “Except a dog wouldn’t be quite as nasty. You ever take a bath old man? Shoo, this whole place smells like a locker full of sweaty gym socks. Hey Rhino you been working out here?”

“Fuck you”, Rhino replied.

“You’re probably not missing out on anything”, Debbie said. “That’s why I want to watch mommy get fucked. I want her to see what it’s like to have a real mans cock up inside her cunt. It’s the least I can do for you, mommy. A hell of a lot more than you ever did for me, you bitch. Whatever this fucking piece of shit said, you always went along with it. Well, guess what? Now my friends are in control. Joseph is in control. And Joseph is going to get some pussy. And just like you, I’m going right along with it.”

She then removed her shorts and underwear, along with her tank top. She then laid spread eagle on the floor.

“Come and get it boys”, she said.

All three guys took their turn, as Debbie’s father found himself thankful for a brief extra minutes this afforded them of life, and the opportunity for his wife Mildred to see- hopefully at long, long last- that this daughter of theirs was, as he had told her for years, completely worthless, to say the least.

But Mildred saw nothing, she was more than devastated, she was destroyed, already dead, betrayed by a love which had always excused way more than was wise, from the earliest of days. Finally, there could be no excuse, especially for what came next.

All three of them savagely raped her, while Debbie engaged in lesbian type foreplay with the two other girls. She laughed at the spectacle of her mother forced to endure the pain, the humiliation, of being raped first by Joseph, then Milo, then anally penetrated by Rhino, and possibly worse of all, forced to perform fellatio at knife point on Joseph, who insured that every drop of cum slinked it’s way down Mildred’s throat.

Debbie’s father finally cried, and finally begged for mercy. But there would be no mercy this night. He watched as Debbie procured a long black handled blade and sliced it over Mildred’s throat, and began to gorge on the blood of her own mother, as Joseph finally cut loose the ropes that had bound her. The overweight woman desperately flailed around to the laughter of the party, as the blood streamed from her severed jugular, until she fell to her knees. They then tore into her, ripping at her flesh and gorging on the blood in a satanic inspired ritual of overwhelming brutality and blood lust.

When Sierra came into the room, this was the first thing that she saw, but the scariest thing was the terror in the eyes of the man, Maxwell Leighton. She assumed that was who this was from the name on the mailbox, the father of Debbie, who she didn’t really know. She stared in shock as he begged her, “please-help us.”

It was too late to help Mildred by then. She was obviously dead, or too close to it to note a distinction.

They rose. They looked at her curiously.

“I was getting hungry”, she said.

“You’re just in time”, said Joseph. Debbie Leighton, known as Spanky, then moved toward her father, the blood of Mildred Leighton dripping from her blade. This was, after all, her official initiation.


“Moooooooooo”.

Rhino seemed to think he was actually communing with the Leighton’s cattle, but they for the most part seemed to pay him no mind

“Rhino, what the fuck are you doing?”, the tattoo bearded girl named Larceny asked him.

“Just talkin’ to ‘em”, he answered defensively as Milo helped himself to a third bottle of the Leighton’s beer supply. He seemed to be somewhat distracted, his mind focused on some distant matter of urgency. The rest all wandered around, passing a joint while gazing up in contemplation on the distant stars of their unleashed imaginations. Larceny glanced at Sierra and rolled her eyes. Sierra tired to smile and look relaxed, but she shivered at the cold and wondered absently if anyone saw her do so. Larceny would not let it go.

“They don’t understand you”, she said. “You look stupid doing that.”

“I’m thinking and concentrating on what I’m trying to say to them when I moo”, Rhino explained. “How do you know they don’t know what I’m saying?”

“If they do they must not be interested because they aren’t answering, are they?”, Joseph pointed out.

“So are we going to do this thing or what?” Milo asked Joseph.

“Got to be done”, he replied.

“Gather round, kids”, he then said. “Everybody, join the circle. For one of you, it will be the last time.”

The girls all looked curiously at this. They came around and Sierra dreaded his words. She had almost got sick when she partook of Leighton’s blood, though Debbie had done the bulk of the hard work. Still, Sierra had no choice, other than to participate. She had damn sure not counted on this, however. Had no idea why they were going to the Leighton’s house. Just that Debbie, the new girl, and girlfriend of Milo, who used to be her boyfriend, had some things she had to straighten out with her parents, and they all agreed to be there for support, if needed.

Now here they all were, out under a full moon on the Leighton farm, in the Virginia countryside, surrounded by cattle, geese, chickens, and a pen of squealing, grunting hogs. Someone was going to go down. Joseph called out their names as they all took their places in a circle around him.

“I’m really fucking disappointed”, he said. “And I am really fucking pissed.”

Sierra noted the blood that covered all of them and the relative small amount that was on her. But why had she been left out of the initial proceedings?

“We’ve got a fucking traitor in our midst.” Joseph went on to explain. “Sierra!”

“Now wait a minute, what are you talking about?”, she demanded.

“So what do you have to say for yourself?” he asked. “You know gossip is one thing that will not be tolerated.”

“I don’t gossip”, she said. “What have I ever told you that wasn’t true?”

“What the hell is going on here, Joseph?” Milo demanded.

“Shut up!” Joseph demanded. “You know how the hell this works. You’re with Spanky now. You and Sierra both ended your contract by mutual consent, with my permission and blessing. So why are you stepping up now?”

“Hey, we’re still friends, good friends”, he said. “And we’re still a group. Just because you’re High Priest-”

“Yes, Milo, I’m High Priest ”, he said, “and for obvious reasons. I’m also with Spiral, and I step up for her, nobody but her. Rhino is with Larceny. Get it? You’re with Spanky, you step up for her and nobody else. Not Sierra. This ain’t about you until you get your say as coven member, as it comes to you, not until then. Understood?”

As he said this, he motioned for Spiral, who walked over to him and placed a head on his shoulder. Sierra was starting now to regret she had ever opened her mouth. Everybody else was silent, and intense, but she noticed that Larceny stared at her with particular intensity, and even glee. Spanky seemed to be put off, but more at Milo, whom she obviously considered to be her personal property, though she was infatuated, truthfully, with Joseph, as were they all. Rhino, whom she had fucked once as a favor to Larceny, looked at her like he was ready for a second go at it, but he always looked at her like that.

“So, I want to know, Sierra, I want to hear it one more time”, Joseph said. “What you told me about Marlowe Krovell. Is it true or not?”

“Of course it’s true”, Sierra replied, at just the time that Spiral, tensing up, automatically removed her head from Josephs’ shoulder while avoiding his gaze.

“Yeah”, Joseph said with an air of superior disgust. “I thought it was.”


VI.

Marlowe was concerned about his uncles’ state of mind right now. It would do him good to spend a few hours in the downtown lock-up, and his withdrawal of one thousand dollars last night from his parents’ personal account gave him the perfect excuse. It also gave him a chance to take the time to go over his uncle’s personal effects. He only hoped that Brad did not freak out to the extent that he came clean and confessed to his many crimes, especially the most serious ones of murder. For the time being, Marlowe needed his uncle Bradley.

He was right in his suspicions. Brad had gotten Marlowe interested in the art of photography, years ago, when Marlowe had been a mere child of seven. For some period, Marlowe wanted to be a professional photographer. This dream evolved over time. At first, what began as a hobby turned into a desire to be a studio photographer. That was back in the days when Marlowe believed in earthly happiness, in loving, caring families, in love itself.

For a short time, he fancied himself as a news photographer, but this was before he started being interested in girls. The stronger grew his urges, the greater became his focus on the prospects of nude modeling and photography. He could never tell his parents this, of course, but he could tell Brad anything. He and Brad were close, enough so Brad purchased him a small number of men’s magazines from time to time, both soft and hard-core pornography. Strangely, Marlowe found them not to his liking. They seemed so obvious, so phony, not in the least appealing.

In his spare time, he read the works of Dr. Anton Szandor LaVey, who gradually became his secret hero. On top of his stack of Ouis, Hustlers, Playboys, and Rascals, was an old second hand copy of The Satanic Bible. He later acquired The Satanic Witch. His readings of the life and times of this strange enigma of a man inspired him to consider pursuing a career path as a crime scene photographer. It took a special kind of person to be able to pursue this line of work, however. In fact, it required a degree of dispassionate objectivity Marlowe would never be able to achieve.

To him, death was the ultimate mode of artistic expression, in that it could take in any of the varied forms of art in any given instance. This was of course with the exception of such styles as Cubism and Dadaism, but Marlowe was certain that in time someone might even invent a mortuary version of these artistic schools as well. Perhaps he would himself, were he not so prejudiced toward surrealism.

Brad, he realized, had no artistic eye whatsoever, his was the taste of the carnival pornographer, and not a good one at that. Now, Brad confirmed his suspicions, in ways he would never have imagined. Every young girl or attractive woman ever buried here Brad must have at one time photographed nude. There was two of Linda Belamy, two of everybody it seemed, including his latest acquisition, Mary Evans..

The dirty bastard, Marlowe thought. He took two, a before and an after. There must have been two hundred of them here, and Marlowe was sure Brad had molested every one of these corpses. No wonder he never expressed an interest in dating, in relationships, yet seemed so content, despite his evident solitude.

Then he happened upon one that made his blood run cold. Raven Hampton-his girlfriend, dead, from a drug overdose- was the first girl with whom he had ever been intimate. He himself had gotten high with her, had been to parties with her, to raves with her. He had introduced him to her friends, for the most part a sad, even morose bunch of phonies. In their own way, Marlowe found them a source of great humor, and so tolerated them. Still, he kept them at arms length, especially when one of them tried to put the arm on Marlowe to acquire for them the formaldehyde formula used in embalming the dead. Marlowe curtly told them no, and he and Raven had a falling out, though this was temporary.

They made up, and then had sex, as it turned out for the last time. He then told his father about the request for the fluid, and his father was incensed, refusing him permission to associate with them again. Marlowe of course knew by now his father never stuck to his word when it came to these tantrums, though mother was a different story. Luckily, she could have cared less, so long as Marlowe did the right thing. He knew that by telling this, he had earned her trust, something that, unfortunately, Marlowe had to gain on a monthly basis.

Yet, it was all for nothing this time. Raven had died, and Marlowe realized he might well work on this girl, but this time, his father refused to allow it. Moreover, he was adamant. He went to his mother, who interceded for him, but amazingly, his father was this time determined that not even she would disobey him in this regard. Even when Marlowe confessed his old feelings for Linda Belamy, his father insisted that this was an entirely different matter, and that furthermore, if he had known then how seriously had been his feelings for Linda, he would have done the same. Actually, he should have known, but he just misread all the signs that should have been obvious.

Anyway, his father determined that Uncle Brad would do the work. Before the funeral, there was a heated argument between Brad and Mabel, his sister and Marlowe’s mother. There was sudden distance between them in the days ahead, and in fact, the distance only seemed to grow colder over the course of the next year. Marlowe’s father Richard never seemed to catch on, and now Marlowe figured that Mabel must have caught Brad in the act. If Richard had found out, he would almost certainly have fired his perverted uncle. He would probably have him arrested and prosecuted as well. On the other hand, mother would have convinced him otherwise, it would open up the possibility of lawsuits. The entire family would be ruined, the family business destroyed.

Still, Brad would have at least been fired and forced to vacate the premises. Now, of course, it was too late for that. His parents were dead. Though Marlowe had assumed that the inheritance of the family business and considerable financial assets might have played a role in his uncle’s actions, he was now not so sure that this was anything more than a secondary motivation.

The post mortem pictures of Raven Randall told him all he needed to know. She was as beautiful in life as she had been in death, though seemingly now more at peace. Why she had never come to him, he wondered. Not once had she ever appeared to him since her demise. If she had, things would have certainly been much different. He would not have felt so aloof, so alone. He would not have been so despondent that he would seek out consolation with Raven’s old friends.

He most certainly would not have had sex with Spiral Lamont. What a mistake that was. Spiral and her friend Sierra were the most profuse in their outpourings of sympathy, but Spiral’s man, Joseph, had been strangely distant at first, and then dismissive. Of course, Joseph was an asshole, he knew that the minute he saw him. All of them were flakes, including, truthfully, Raven, and Spiral and Sierra were as flaky as they come. Sierra seemed to fancy herself a future Goth metal singer and fronted a forgettable band with the painfully appropriate name The Mocktones. In fact, Joseph had given them that name with a typically derisive flourish, and they somehow, unbelievably, decided to keep it.

Aside from Sierra, the group was older, and Joseph did not associate with them, yet Sierra was “allowed” to continue her association with them. Ravens friends were all ordered about by Joseph, but he made the deadly mistake of trying to order Marlowe one night.

“Hey, get me a beer”, he had said curtly.

“Get it yourself”, Marlowe said, “I ain’t your bitch, Spiral is, for the time being.”

Marlowe walked by Spiral as he grabbed and fondled her ass with both hands as he walked by, then up toward the bar. It took Joseph all of two minutes to call Marlowe out. Marlowe gave him fair warning.

“Sure, I’ll fight you”, he said. “But if I win, I’m going to fuck you straight in the ass.”

Joseph was livid and seemingly paralyzed with a combination of fear, rage, and indecision. The red on his lean, hollowed face was almost equal to the blood red dyed sides of his dark brown hair, his freckles a faded memory. He was tall, yet sunk down in his chair to a height the equivalent of his peon, a boy named Rhino, who honestly seemed to be the only one genuinely broken up about Raven’s overdose. He was the only one who seemed to cry real tears. Yet, he was an obvious stooge.

“Your call, tough guy”, Marlowe continued.

He ambled about outside the club for ten minutes before Milo suddenly appeared. It was to be an obvious face saving attempt at a peace offering. They knew that he was distraught over Raven, Joseph understands that, Milo explained. He wants to apologize. But as Marlowe was considering all this, he caught sight of Spiral, tears in her eyes, and then Sierra, making her way toward them. Sierra was Milo’s woman, and stood next to him, then joined him in urging Marlowe to come back. Joseph had meant no disrespect. As she said this, he kept looking at Spiral. He knew then that Joseph had turned on her, and that was enough to tell Marlowe that Joseph’s assured entreaties of peace and friendship were all self-serving. He was not to be trusted under any circumstances.

“I might be back in a bit”, Marlowe said. “I just want to hang out here for awhile. Besides, I won’t be staying much longer anyway. I’m not in a partying mood. Hell, I just lost my girl, you know?”

“No you didn’t”, Sierra said. But before she could continue, Milo shot her a look and she looked away.

“If you change your mind, come on back in”, Milo said. “First drinks on me.”

They left, but Spiral was still outside, and as they passed, Sierra stopped and seemed to be saying something of a consoling nature to her, but Spiral was in tears. Milo tugged at Sierra’s arm, and soon they were both inside. Marlowe approached the distraught girl, and asked her what was wrong. She looked at him and she was livid. Marlowe, she informed him, had caused Joseph to dump her.

Marlowe just laughed. What did he care for some kind of shit like this, he couldn’t believe he was still here, but he had to find out what Sierra was talking about.

“Well, welcome to the club, you lost your man”, he said as he emphasized the last pronoun with finger quotes, “and I lost my girl. Hard to tell which is worse, me losing somebody that’s for real or you being obsessed with some phony-“

“She wasn’t really your girl, all right?”, Spiral said. “Raven was Rhino’s girl, ok? Can’t you tell? Isn’t it obvious? Go in there and look at him. Raven was using you, to-“

“You’re lying”, Marlowe shouted. He then crashed through the door of the place, stretched out his arm to show the incandescent blue ink of his wrists to the gatekeepers, then flew into the place. He didn’t see Joseph, but did see Milo and Sierra, but no Rhino, not at first, until he saw him dancing, closely, slowly, to the blaring loud music of Metallica, with a fucking dude, for God’s sake, a bald dude in fatigues, with-no, not a dude, a fucking broad, that beard and moustache wasn’t real it was a tattoo. Rhino was still crying and-

WHAM! Down he went on the floor with a thug and suddenly he felt the savage force of somebody kicking and punching him, in the ribs and the head. For a minute or two he was out like a light, but then he felt himself get hauled up by the waist of his pants, an arm cradling him by the crotch, and then SLAM! Down he went on the table.

No one was trying to stop him, not the bartender, not the bouncers, nobody, there was nothing but a cacophony of noises cheering on Joseph Karinsky, who might well be planning to kill him in his drunken, drug addled rage. Marlowe relaxed, let himself go limp, let the blows ring down upon his head and abdomen, as he suddenly slid back off the table onto the floor below. He cracked open his eyes, squinted enough to see Joseph straddling him, hovering over him.

Marlowe understood the process by which history was made. It was always the winner who got to write the final chapter, and spin all the preceding ones. Moreover, he knew enough about Joseph. Few if any would remember this as a cowardly, hit-from-behind attack. Of course, it wasn’t going to necessarily go down like that. Joseph was convinced that Marlowe was defeated, right up until the time Marlowe’s left foot tripped Joseph and instigated his fall, which was stopped by Marlowe with his right foot securely in Josephs testicles.

Joseph howled with pain as Marlowe rose, landing a succession of hard, cruel blows to Joseph’s temples, mouth, and nose, then a final roundhouse to the midsection. Joseph was done. Unfortunately for him, Marlowe was not. With Joseph doubled over, Marlowe grasped him from behind and encircled his waist, as he savagely ripped at the clasp of his jeans. Down came the pants and the underwear, and Marlowe called for a condom.

The crowd was going wild, cheering. Marlowe looked around to see that several people were passing out bills. Some people had been betting on this. Meanwhile, there was no sign of Milo, of Sierra, or Rhino. They may have been waiting for him outside, or more than likely, they wanted to spare their not so grand master the humiliation of viewing his coming disgrace.

A woman handed Marlowe a condom, a good-looking woman. Marlowe, unzipping his pants, asked her to put it on him as he extracted his cock from his now open fly. She asked why.

“You don’t think I can get a hard on for this piece of shit do you?”

Joseph though was coming around, starting to pull himself together. That suited Marlowe fine. The woman put the condum on him with a lascivious massage technique, and Joseph was threatening him.

“Get off me you fag”, he stated.

“Let’s see who gets off before we start with the name calling”, Marlowe replied.

Marlowe stopped at a shouted command, thinking for a minute that his well-deserved moment of triumph would now be denied him. But after a follow-up command to “just wait a minute”, the speakers began blaring a song he had never before heard, something called “The Stroke”, an old seventies song he later learned was by an ancient rock star by the name of Billy Squires. The crowd went wild, forming a circle around them.

Marlowe then proceeded to fuck Joseph in the ass for a couple of minutes, as his hapless victim screamed in agony. With a brutal blow to the back, Marlowe sent him down to the floor, head first, then savagely turned him around, wiping the mucous and blood and shit off the condom onto Joseph’s hair, face, and lips. As Joseph gagged at the taste of his own shit, Marlowe jerked off the condom, allowing the free flow of cum and then, urine, to flood his foes mouth and nostrils.

Marlowe then pulled himself together, to the sounds of cheering from the crowd, who had previously chanted in ecstatic and rhythmic appreciation of his actions. Marlowe now received offers of beer, pussy, ecstasy, and other things he had never heard of. He had never felt so alive, but he had to leave. Older people off in the corner, one of whom was on the phone, were watching him closely. The bartender was with him, and he was positive the man on the phone was the owner.

Marlowe was still underage, and shouldn’t really be in this place. Of course, he was far from the only person here illegally, but most of the rest of them did not usually ass rape an enemy in the middle of Happy Hour. He strolled toward the door, pausing as he zipped up his pants, and looked toward Joseph, cowering in the floor in a state of pain and abject humiliation.

“Let’s do this again some time, shall we?”, he said.

That had all been two years ago, but it seemed to be decades in the distant past, until now. Now, it seemed like yesterday. The pictures of Raven bought it all back. Damn his uncle! How many times had he cursed him this way over the last three weeks? This was the final blow.

Still there was more to come. In the chest-of-drawers that contained the picture album, was nothing much of value, with the exception of one onyx ring his father had given him for his birthday a short number of years ago. Some old bills, some letters, postcards, many of which he had mailed to himself from Boston one year in which he taken a long dreamed of vacation, as well as old pictures of himself as a child, as a college student. Marlowe wondered how long ago he became addicted to the sensual pleasures of dead flesh. Had he entertained such fantasies even this long ago?

Marlowe found himself wondering if his own longings were any less perverse. Then, he saw it-a large stationary security envelope, with a name on it, but no address. He looked dumbly at his own name written in a flowery, artistic script. Where had he seen that before? Where? Many times of course, but whom did he know that wrote in such decorative fashion? Actually, it was not that good. It seemed hurried, in fact.

It was not until after he delivered this summary artistic judgment that it sunk in. What was Brad doing with this, and why did it have his, Marlowe’s name, but no address. Merely PRIVATE MARLOWE KROVELESCU

The family had dropped that name six generations ago, had Anglicized it-more or less- to Krovell. Among the very few people that knew it were he and his family-and Raven. Then he knew where he had seen this script before. It was on posters and artwork, all over the walls of the room that Raven shared with her roommate, Sierra, the singer and artist, the would-be Goth Queen of the Damned. Yet, not only was there no address, there was no postmark, no stamp. This had been hand delivered by way of Brad, who had opened and then read it.

Marlowe picked out the piece of parchment onto which was a note, which seemed hastily and uncharacteristically scribbled, though in large letters-

DON’T EAT THE LEFTOVERS

He and his parents had been gone for a week’s vacation to the Blue Ridge Mountains, to a cabin deep in the woods, far from civilization. It was the kind of thing Marlowe hated, though he found himself now dreading the prospect of never again joining his family on one of these outings to “get close to nature”, as his mother had always put it. They always left on a Thursday evening, and returned the Sunday after the next. A complete week and two days seemed more like a month to Marlowe. What kind of human being enjoys this kind of shit, he found himself wondering. It was great if you like bears, bugs, and briars, but other than that, it was fucking boring. Marlowe hated to fish and to hunt, detested swimming, and loathed sunlight. The only thing that made it worthwhile, to a point, was the nights and the surrounding constant chirruping of the crickets.

Brad managed to handle things well enough during this time, but while he and his parents were away, he would spend his nights out on the town. His father at the time assumed his brother-in-law was just out trying to meet women. He understood now why this last time his mother snorted with disgust when this was voiced. What a laugh, she had said.

There was nothing to laugh about, though, when they returned from their last excursion. The place was a fucking wreck. It was as if a hurricane had been through the place. Yet, Brad seemed unconcerned. He had misplaced a couple of hundred dollars, and had just turned the place upside down looking for it. He apologized profusely. He had also inadvertently misplaced a contract. But everything was fine now, he had found it, and the money as well. And so, it was settled, except for cleaning the place up, which mother demanded he do post haste.

That night, as he and his uncle began the process of preparing for the embalming of an elderly man who had recently succumbed to a heart attack, Marlowe noticed that one of the cabinets that contained some formaldehyde looked as though it had a broken door. He did not really think that much about it, but when he mentioned it, Brad said that the lock had jammed and he just pried it open. Very, very strange indeed.

He then offered to send out for pizza, but Marlowe declined. He was not in the mood. If he wanted something later, he would just make do with what was there. He hated Kentucky Fried Chicken, but he could suffer through it for one night, if not he would find something. Brad seemed perturbed, but again at the time he paid it no mind. Now, it seemed obvious. Brad had tried to prevent Marlowe’s murder, but did not care to carry it to the extent of saving his sister and brother-in-law, Marlowe’s parents.

It was Joseph’s doings. It had to be. They had broken in one of the nights before they had returned, while Brad was away, and stole some formaldehyde, and maybe some other things. They then poisoned some of the leftover food, and more than likely the condiments, the salt and pepper, probably anything they could find, such as the chili, a salad, a pitcher of tea. Most people would never dream of eating such food after a couple of days or three at the most. His parents, and especially his mother, however, were exceptional spendthrifts with an aversion to the slightest waste. It was a wonder they had not died of salmonella or botulism years ago.

This was more than just a normal case of food poisoning, however. This had all the earmarks of a classic premeditated poisoning. Sierra had tried to prevent it, after doubtless helping Joseph and the rest to begin with. Marlowe would have to remember to thank her, before he killed her.

Spiral Lamont, as well, was no doubt as much involved in this as the others. Joseph recalled how when he left the club that night, Spiral was still outside. He had approached and told her she might as well go with him now. Spiral at first objected, but it didn’t take Joseph long to talk her into relenting. In fact, it took no effort. He simply told her to suit herself. If she wanted to remain with Joseph, she deserved what she got. She followed along behind him. He then proceeded to take her to his home, as she cried and alternately complained about Joseph and the treatment he had dished out to her, how he abused her, how he kept all of them under his thumb. Sometimes she did not so much mind, nor did the others, but sometimes when she lay awake at night, she would look over at him, and wondered why she put up with him.

Marlowe listened to all of this lunacy, not because he cared, not because he was sympathetic, but merely because he wanted to lay one last insult at Joseph. He would fuck his woman this night, without his permission. It seemed only fitting he should have the right to do so. He had earned the right.

He took her home, taking her in through the back way in order to avoid disturbing the family, and he sneaked her up the steps. He proceeded to have sex with her. It was the first time anyone had fucked her in over two weeks, she said. Joseph seemed to have lost interest in her, she complained. Anymore, he seemed to have no interest in anyone but himself. The others were just there to bask in his greatness.

Still, the sun had barely started to rise before she was calling her friend, telling Milo she needed to talk to Sierra. She had begged her to come and get her and not to say anything. Joseph watched in amusement when the old Bonneville pulled up to the front of his house, honked it’s horn as it slowly went on down the road, and Spiral stuck her head out the window, seemingly trying to ascertain whether anyone had come with Sierra. She was obviously scared out of her wits. She looked up the road to see if any followed. Finally, with not another word besides goodbye, she hurried down the steps, Marlowe right behind her, hoping to insure she his parents never saw her.

That was the last he heard from her, or from any of them, until now.


The handwritten note, hastily written and given to Brad, the only person home, was meant to be for his eyes only, until Brad had opened it and, considering his current situation, decided to let matters run their normal course. He would have to remember to thank him as well. He did need his uncle, for the time being.




VII.
Grace Rodescu was still in pain from the beating, and worried about the possibility of disease, but not overly so. The thousand dollars she had made off the perverted little mortician had caught her up on her bills just to the point where she was good for another month. But this was a temporary respite at best. It was time to go back to work. God, but she needed a fix, so bad it was painful to contemplate, and the withdrawals had not really started.

She thought about Father Khoska. Why had he not returned her calls? He had saved her, years before, after she as a teenage orphan was taken from Romania, the year after the death of the Ceaucescus. Someone had seen her, taken a liking to her, and offered to bring her to America. She had no family. They were all dead, or vanished. She had no one but the brutal nurses and aides at the orphanage, some of whom she later learned were not truly qualified for the work for which they were licensed under the corrupt bureaucracy that had been Ceaucescu’s Romania. All it took was the passing of a childishly easy exam, and if you had the right connections, you could achieve almost anything.

She had endured months of starvation, with rags for clothing, faulty at best plumbing and sewage, vermin infested surroundings, with mold, filth, and the stagnant decay of rotting flesh that seemed to emanate from every surrounding breeze, when there was one. It was cold in the winter and stifling hot in the one summer she had endured, but someone had taken a liking to her all right.

She was happy to come to America; she did not mind that she would have to work hard. She would have chores to perform, like all the other children. Good, she thought at first, there would be others, so she would not be alone. Then, the more she thought about it, the less she liked the idea. She certainly had no friends here. No one had friends in Bucharest; there were only enemies and competitors for every scrap of sustenance. Still, the idea of going away with this man that she did not know seemed to have a foreboding air to it.

The man who had bought her-adopted her, as he put it-was a man named Vraslav Malocu, an American of Rumanian ancestry. He looked upon her with kindly eyes and a knowing smile. He cared very deeply for her, she was told, which was why he had been willing to shell out two thousand American dollars for her. It was her chance to have a new life, in a new world, a world of hope and opportunity.

He remembered one of her teachers, Mr. Vascu, when she was a mere seven years old, had always said the Americans were filthy pigs. He was an old man, he was funny, and made funny faces that he could not seem to help, and the kids all imitated him behind his back. He was a smart man, though. She had been sure at the time, however, that Mr Vascu was dead now. Everyone in Romania was dead now.

The American seemed nice. He paid attention to her, and told her how pretty she was. He told her that several times, but when he brought her back to America, strangely enough she never saw him again. He left her with another person who never seemed to know how to smile, though he tried. He laughed a lot, but did so at things he did not seem to think was funny at all. She could never get an answer when she asked what place they were in, but he eventually learned they were in a place called Baltimore.

There were a bunch of them, girls and women, and they shared things- things that you drank, things that you smoked, and things that you injected in your arms. Grace was used to needles, but still she dreaded them. But this was not so bad. The first time was scary, but after a few minutes, she seemed to fade away. It was like a dream, a really good one.

The next time was even better. The third time, she actually looked forward to it, but something strange happened. When she awoke the next morning, she was sore, she was bleeding, from her vagina. She remembered some man being with her that night, but it was like a dream too.

They used to have special classes for the girls, it was a class for learning English. It was also about learning style and manners. A woman named Nadia instructed them as to the proper way to approach a man, the right way to look and smile when you asked certain questions and said certain things. Nadia, whom Grace thought might have been Mikhail’s wife, told them to look upon it as a joke, as a prank. It was a serious kind of prank, however. It was like a game, but one the men should always think they won. It was also a game to them, of course, but in a different way. The real trick, what required great skill, was to make the man, sometimes the woman, think that you really enjoyed playing the game. The best way actually to do that was to learn to love the game, no matter with whom you played the game.

You were to smile and act in such a way that they thought you were really looking forward to it, not just that you were willing. It meant a lot to the men if they thought you really wanted to do things with them. It really helped even more if you could make it seem like you were shy, as if you were not used to this kind of thing, but still wanted to do it. Especially with, well, whoever the one was you were talking to at any given moment. However, it was easy for them to trip you up. You had to be careful.

One man asked Grace how old she was, and Grace said, “Twelve, I think”.

“Well, don’t you know?”, the man asked. “When is your birthday?”

Grace shrugged. She had almost forgotten what a birthday was, as she herself never celebrated one, and never really knew when hers was. She honestly did not know how old she was, only that at the time she left Romania she was supposed to have been eleven, and having been here a little over a year, knew just enough math to assume she must have been twelve.

The man asked her if she liked to do that one thing that Grace really hated. It just always tasted nasty. Grace of course told him she loved it, and the man seemed to be convinced. That was a big relief to Grace, because she had screwed up once before, and as a punishment Nadia had withheld her scheduled shot for a whole two weeks.

Fortunately, this time turned out all right, so she guessed that at least this particular man-client, they called them-was pleased. Grace had learned this particular skill very well. Not that she liked it, far from it, but despite the awful taste, at least there was seldom any pain involved.

There were all kinds of girls there. Girls mostly from Romania, but other places as well, especially from a place called Russia. There were others, as well, such as black women from Africa. There were also funny looking women from some place called Asia, who all looked alike to Grace, though she learned quickly that there were all different kinds of women from different places in Asia, who spoke different languages. Grace grew skillful at learning the differences in all of them. She made a game out of it. They did not seem to like her, though; they regarded her for the most part as a pest. Some were mean, but Grace learned to overlook this. She guessed they just had problems and were not in the mood for games. To Grace, it was just a way to pass the time.

Besides, some of the clients were hateful, but Grace learned to overlook that as well. She certainly knew better than to speak rudely to anyone as she did the one man who told her to stop smiling at her. He knew that Grace was just like all the rest, a little cheap tramp. Grace cried and screamed at him, told him he was an ugly son of a bitch. It was the truth, too. All the same, this incident resulted in her punishment, not so much for the words, but the screaming. Luckily, for her, she had screamed this in Rumanian, so the man did not really know what she said, or her punishment might have been worse.

There was one woman there with a baby, which was a novelty. Most girls never had babies, though they got pregnant from time to time. However, this baby was special. The woman was buying her freedom, and was trading her baby in exchange for this special privilege, whatever it was. The woman was getting too old. She was pushing thirty, according to Nadia, who ran the house and the girls. The baby was beautiful, precious. The woman, another Romanian, left without so much as a goodbye to anybody, not even the child, said to be the son of a wealthy Japanese businessman.

One night after the woman left, maybe a week or so later, Grace heard the baby screaming desperately, like she had heard so many infants at that awful place in Romania. Sometimes they had colic; sometimes they were sick with some kind of flu or other virus. Most of the time, however, they were just starving. No one starved here, though. Everyone got enough to eat. Everyone got a bowl of rice, a couple of pieces of bread, some water. Sometimes, though rarely, powdered milk and potatoes, and on special occasions, a coca-cola with some peanuts or sunflower seeds.

It was insured that all were fed well, to discourage the acceptance of food from clients, who sometimes, frankly, forgot their place.

Nadia, who was a trained nurse or maybe a doctor-no one was certain- regularly checked for any kind of sickness or disease they might transmit to valued customers, who were on their honor as to their state of health. Of course, it happened, but rarely, though when it did, the girl who came down with it was “allowed to go”-which meant she was never seen again. This only happened once, though, with a woman who had come down with something that oddly enough seemed to have been quite common in Romania, even among the children. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no cure for it. Grace had been one of the lucky few to escape this disease in her particular orphanage. Grace had always been a lucky little girl.

This could surely not have been the case with the infant. It could not have a serious illness. It could not have been starving. Everyone here was cared for too well for that. He must have the colic, or maybe just a bad cold or flu. Grace could hear the sounds of laughter, but the screams of the baby only got louder, more horrifying. Grace had never heard anything like this- never! Oddly, the laughter of the people upstairs was persistent. Everyone else in her quarters was out of it. She asked one of the Asian girls-she thought she was from Hong Kong-if she heard it. The woman mumbled something and told her to go to sleep.

Grace could not sleep, though she tried. The effects of the drug had worn off quicker than usual, and she was anxious, moody, and nervous. The crying of the baby was stressful, despite the fact that it had to have been coming from two or three floors above her. She quietly made her way up the stairs of the basement where all twenty of them laid stretched out on their mats. Their night was done. The other seventeen were still out, working the streets, as they say. Grace made her way to the outside doorway, and she could hear more plainly the sounds of music. She was wrong. The cries were coming from the floor right above her, the ground floor. They probably did not hear it because of the music. It was strange music, similar to what she heard at Romanian folk festivals before they killed old man and old woman. It was different, though. The people were laughing and talking, some of them singing, though horribly.

She looked through the window. She knew she was never to come up here without permission, but surely, they would appreciate her seeing to the baby. After all, Mikhail, who was the boss of everybody, even Nadia, had said that the baby was “very valuable”.

Why, then, did they not answer its cries? They were on the same floor, in fact, they seemed to be in the same room, though she was not sure. She looked carefully through the window, and there was Mikhail and Nadia. She saw no sign of the driver and handyman, Grozny, who looked out for them when they were out. Probably that was where he was now. It was his job to look out for them. He was to protect them from the bad people that might try to hurt them in some way.

There were other people, but she did not recognize them. There was an Asian couple. Maybe that was it; they were there to adopt the baby. Some people paid big money, she had heard, to adopt babies, which was another vital and useful service that Mikhail performed, but never until now, with a child of one of these girls. Most people considered a child of one of these women to be worthless. The reason for this seemed to have something to do with the drugs. No, most babies were purchased outright from other people, by Mikhail, or even stolen, and then sold to interested couples, who seemed to have no other way of acquiring a child. There was much money to make from them, and this was no doubt the reason for the Asian people’s interest.

They must be Japanese, like the baby’s father. That had to be it. She wished she could get a good look at them so she could know for sure. Warily, she looked again in the window. Suddenly, though, as she raised her head, she felt a rough, strong hand, which grabbed her by the hair of the head and jerked her up. A harsh voice demanded to know what she was doing here, and who she was. She looked around in dread.

Mikhail. He had caught a glimpse of her and had come around from behind her.

“You”, he said, as he dragged her up and around the back of the house. “What did you see in there, what the hell do you think you are doing?”

“The baby”, Grace said in simple terror, her eyes wide with fear of what was coming next, as Mikhail approached the steps leading back down to the basement. To her surprise, he passed them by. He then took her around to the front door, and into the kitchen.

She could hear the baby’s desperate, agonized scream, and watched in horror as it spun slowly around over the flames of the rotisserie, it’s feet and hands bound by metal cords.

“You wanted to see it”, Mikhail flared in hateful anger. “There, now you see it. Are you satisfied?”

She tried to turn away but could not. He held her with a firm grip. He would not allow her to turn. The laughter in the adjoining room had stopped, and she thought she could feel all their eyes burning into her.

“You would like to join him, perhaps?”, Mikhail asked. “Get your ass in there and sit down.”

He spun her around and pushed her toward Nadia, who looked even more angrily at her than had Mikhail. She tried to avoid their gaze, but the Asian man greeted her heartily.

“Well, what have we here?”, he asked her in English. He was obviously Japanese. He was well dressed, well mannered, friendly and polite. Not that that mattered now, of course, but Grace tried to find some comfort in it.

“Baby meat, it is good for you”, the man explained. “It keeps you young, no? You know how old I am? I am twenty years old, you see? But not really, I am thirty eight. Who would ever guess it?”

But no one was laughing, including the Japanese mans wife, who in fact seemed livid.

“Why was this allowed to happen?” she demanded. “This is a bad omen, a bad omen.”

The man shushed her, speaking in Japanese, a language Grace recognized enough to know the man was telling her not to insult the hosts. Mikhail would have none of this.

“Please, feel free to speak openly”, he insisted. “This is merely an inconsequential occurrence, one that can be handled. The only bad omen I can foresee is going to be for this one here, our little nosey intruder.”

“Oh, no, she is a darling”, the man said. “Please, don’t feel badly towards her. I am sure she knows by now not to speak the wrong words, you raise all these poor unfortunate children too well for that.”

“That-is not the point”, the woman said.

“As you can see,” the man continued, “women’s equality has unfortunately reared its dragons head in the land of the rising sun, as in your charming land. I assure you, this is nothing of any importance. I insist the child join us as our guest.”

Grace did join them that night, and ate a piece of thigh. She had not noticed by this time that the baby had stopped crying; in fact she still seemed to hear it.

She still seemed to hear it this night as well, twenty some odd years later. Grady Crawford forced her back to the present.

“Grace, you need help”, he said. “You can’t keep doing this shit. I know you want to get back in the business, but you have to be able to leave all this shit behind you now. You need to go back into rehab. Again! Every time you start digging around, this is the result. Yeah, you busted a prostitution ring, you closed down an exotic dance hall that was a front for the mob. But look at you.”

He paused for a minute to let it all sink in. Unfortunately, he feared that it could never do so. Old memories took up too much presence to allow for anything approaching the rational to take root, let alone thrive. He wondered why he was wasting his time.

“And the same women, if they aren’t dead now, they are out there, doing the same shit. The guys that ran the ring? Hell, they were mid-level. They were probably replaced the minute the ink dried on the indictments. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good thing you did, but it wasn’t a step up for you. You are on some kind of suicide mission, precisely because it is personal to you. Just look at you. You almost got yourself killed the other night, and for what? And then you hustle some poor schmuck out of a thousand dollars, and you say he’s a necrophiliac?”

“There’s a story there, Grady”, Grace explained, holding her temper.

“Yeah, one I’m not interested in”, he said. “Suppose you can prove it, then what?”

“Grady, can I ask you something?”, she asked spitefully. “Are you a newsman or a paperboy?”

Grady Crawford sucked in his breathe, his eyes bellowed, but he held it in, for a minute, and then he sputtered. He was about to remind her that he gave her the first opportunity she had ever had as an investigative journalist, when nobody else was willing, that he had overlooked a lot in the way of her unprofessional conduct, which she preferred to delude herself into thinking was an unconventional approach, a feminine type of gonzo journalism.

She wasn’t about to let yet another conversation veer down that path, it almost always ended with him calling her a drug addict and a whore. It was true, but beside the point. It always ended with the two of them fucking there in his office, after which he paid her two hundred dollars, and she would get a fix. This time was going to be different.

“No pussy for you today, Grady, you can forget it”, she declared. “I need work”

“You think this is what this is about?” he replied. “Look at this shit you left me last month, this so-called interview. Is this fucking serious?”

The Jonathan Sharkey interview, of course she half expected him to throw that in her face. She had to admit it was hard to defend it, yet she was expected to try.

“The man is running for President, what can I say?”, she declared. “You have to admit it’s interesting. He is a self-professed ‘Satanic Vampyre and Hecate Witch’. He has his own political party, ‘The Vampyre, Witches, and Pagans Party’. You going to tell me that’s not interesting?”

“The guy is a fucking nut”, Grady boomed. “Yeah, he’s going to impale terrorists on the White House lawn, along with drug dealers, child molesters, and the Indiana Speedway Police? What the shit are you smoking? He even says he is going to impale Bush. He’s planning on going to Saudi Arabia with a group of people he calls his ‘Death Dealers’, and threaten the leaders there face to face. He’s going to impale the President of Mexico if he doesn’t release Duane ‘Mad Dog’ Chapman.

“He’s a man in his thirties who’s been charged with stalking his ex-wife, and he’s married to a nineteen year old woman he is constantly fighting with in public. He married her because she said she’s having his child, only it turns out now according to him she may have lied.

“Here’s a good one, he had sex with his half-sister, both before and after learning they were related. And that same sister was a school bus driver who lost her job for openly referring to herself as a witch. But now he claims that her witchcraft is responsible for Hurricane Katrina. You can’t make this shit up.”

“Damn,Grady, I never said it was a serious candidacy”, she said defensively.

Yes, you do, that’s just the point”, he continued. “You talk about this reject from sanity like he is a bona fide legitimate candidate worthy of consideration, like he actually has an outside chance of making an impact in the next election. Look at this part here. You ask him does he intend to support the religious rights of all Americans to worship as they please, despite having made statements to the effect that he considers himself the sworn enemy of the Christian God. He answers in the affirmative, and there is no follow up on your part, you just let his answer stand.

“’Yes, I mainly want to insure the right to freedom of worship for vampyres, pagans, wiccans, druids, goths, satanists, and other kin., that they can worship and practice their faith in peace. But I intend to safeguard the rights of all Americans to worship as they please, regardless of how I feel about their religion personally.’”

“After that you ask him about the national debt! What the fuck?”

“You have to talk to this guy a certain way, Grady”, she replied, becoming more perturbed by the second. “Of course I don’t take him seriously. That’s why I didn’t submit an opinion piece about him for the editorial page. If I had I would have been a bit more combative, but what would be the point of that? This is not a major issue, this is a human-interest story, don’t you get that? What’s your real problem with this piece? Why don’t you just spill it?”

“Awright”, Grady said as he suddenly, to her surprise, backed down. “It’s this personal involvement you have with stories you insist on doing that you just can’t be objective about.”

“Uh, believe me, I am not involved with Jonathan Sharkey”, she said defensively.

“I don’t mean that”, he said. “I don’t think it would ever occur to you to be interested in this nut if it weren’t for the fact that he clains a Romanian connection. Says he will be the next King of Romania if he fails to win the Presidential election here. He’ll be the next Vlad The Impaler, according to him, whether the Secret Service cares for his particular plans for George W, Bush in that regard or not.

“Then there’s this mortician, what was his name?”, he continued. He dropped the Sharkey file and picked up a thinner one with the name he sought.

“Oh, yes, Bradley Marlowe”, he continued. “Somebody you probably wouldn’t have given a second thought to, outside of possibly blackmailing him, only you happened to find out that his now deceased brother-in-law comes from a family of, well, what do you know, Romanians.

“And now this other stuff”, he concluded with a sudden note of sadness.

“This other stuff?”, she asked. “Do you know how that sounds? Do you have any clue whatsoever the kind of hell I went through in my life? You tell me, Grady, if I’m not going to do something about it, who the hell is? It’s still going on, even today, only it’s more widespread. These are real women, real kids that have had their entire childhoods, their lives, taken away from them in ways you could never imagine in your worse nightmares. And you say I shouldn’t do something because I can’t be objective? How the fuck do you become objective about an infant being roasted alive while people in the next room are having a party?”

He looked down at the floor, shamed for once into silence, but still stammering out an attempt to respond. But he couldn’t, because he had never heard the story before today, and didn’t really want to hear any more. Grace was challenging his own objectivity, and he and resented it.

Still, Grace was determined that he had to hear it. She would not allow him to dismiss her today until he finally did hear every single detail.

It was too weeks later, two weeks of a drug-induced haze that went on longer than any she had previously experienced. Then, Mikhail went to her. She was still aware of her surroundings, but calm now. She had told no one what she had seen, as she had promised. The taste of the baby’s barbecued thigh was still with her. The taste grew stronger with Mikhail’s presence.

He had chosen her personally for a special assignment, he told her. She had been a good girl, so she deserved a chance to do something of great importance. If she were good, Mikhail would see that she had all the Coca-Cola she wanted for a whole week. Mikhail had never made such an extravagant promise, and the other girls looked impressed. They looked shocked, even sad. Coca-cola was a rare treat, but Grace would be glad to share some with them. One woman, a big African named Souza, hugged her and told her goodbye. She was crying.

It was a long ride out to the countryside, through hills and deep woods, not unlike Romania. The reminders of her old homeland did not sit well with Grace. She hated that place. She wanted to return home, to her cot and her drugs. She was feeling anxious. She doubted though whether Grozhny had any. Nadia seemed not to have any either, or she would have probably already injected her, as she always did. Nadia too was silent this night, but she was never very talkative. She just said no more than was necessary, and everyone quickly learned not to question her in any way. It would never have occurred to Grace to dispute her in any matter.

Therefore, when Nadia told her to get out of the car and head toward the strange flickering lights, Grace knew that she expected her to comply with this strange request. Usually when they went out, it was in downtown Baltimore, or DC, or some other city, full of men who liked girls and had plenty of money to spend for them. They knew what to do. They were to walk together in twos, sometimes threes, and respond only to certain words and phrases. Anything else the girls were to respond to with either a yes or a no, but there was something called a code by which the girls were to conduct themselves. It was always something different. It was always changing.

“Are you girls looking for something special or are you just looking for trouble, or are you just looking for special trouble?” was the last code, and Grace ended up sore for two days by the time her “date” with the man was finished.

This though was entirely different. Grace continued toward the light, the flickering light of a distant campfire, one that grew ever closer, as did the sound of the male voices, at least three of them. They were talking about something to do with votes, and other things Grace did not understand, and as Grace got closer, she could see the one man who was making fun of the people who had done this “voting” for him. They were all idiots, he said, just tell them what they want to hear and do just enough to make them think you mean it, and as long as you are careful, you can live like a king. The other men were laughing in agreement with him, and Grace could see there were actually four of them. She knew now what she had to do.

“Hey guys,” she said with a smile. “What’s up?”

They all looked around, in shock, except for one man, who looked as though he had been expecting her.

“Oh-My-God”, the vote man said. “What the fuck have we got here?”

“Remember that present I said I had for you, Randall?” the not surprised man asked. “Well, what do you think? Boys?”

They just all stared, open mouthed, then looked around at each other. One asked if she was with anybody, but she obviously was not. She was all alone, out here in the middle of nowhere, with the four of them.

“I’m kind of cold”, Grace said as she posed in front of the men in her short, tight, thin, light colored skirt. By the light of the campfire, it was easy to see she was wearing nothing under it. “Would somebody please warm me up?”

She smiled at them with an air of expectation that was practiced to a level of near professionalism drenched in childlike sincerity.

“Well, if you’re cold, you’re welcome to share this big coat with me”, the man named Randall said.

“Thanks, mister” she replied as she crawled in between the man’s side and his open coat, holding herself tightly up against him.

“Daddy says I shouldn’t do this with other men, but fuck him, you feel so good”, she said as the man started lasciviously massaging her naked thigh. “You do that good, too.”

She said this as wanting to convey the impression that she intended for this man alone to hear it. Which was an easy enough skill, in that she truly did not want to say it, let alone for any to hear it.

“Boys, I don’t know about you, but I feel like the proverbial kid in the candy store”, Randall said.

“Well, I don’t much think it’s candy”, one of the other men said, “but if you don’t mind, save some for me just the same”.

“Oh, hell not”, Randall replied. “This little bitch is all mine. No offense, boy, but you can get your own-“

“Excuse me, sir, but”-the knowing man then cleared his throat and looked uncomfortably at the other two.

“Oh, hell, Jason”, Randall said. “Shit, I’m just having fun, after I’m through you boys can do what the fuck you want to her.”

Grace was scared, for the first time in a long time. The heroin was almost completely worn off, and now she was faced with the prospect of having sex with four grown men, only it turned out to be three, as the knowing man said he wasn’t interested. Randall insisted though that he join in, so it would be four after all.

She had never had sex with more than one man at a time, but on the other hand she had on various occasions had sex with several men in one day, sometimes less than thirty minutes apart. Surely, this could not be that much different. She would try to stay calm and relaxed the way Nadia had taught her. Then something else happened. Randall, the man to whom she had been present, told her who he was. They never did that, ever. They might give a first name from time to time, and it might or might not be their real one, but they never gave their full names. This one however gave not only his full name-Randall Morrison-but what he did for a living. He was something called a “politician”, and was trying to be “the governor” of some place she had never heard of before, some place by the name of Maryland.

Then she found out that, in fact, not only was Maryland something called a “state”, but that she lived there, and Randall might well become her governor. It meant somehow that he would be the leader of the state. He explained that he first had to convince enough people to vote for him in something called a “primary”, then again in what he called the “general election”.

Grace was really scared now, especially when the maybe one day governor told her the people had to go on thinking he was a good man, because he was planning on running for the Senate some day, or maybe even for President.

“So am I going to be your daughter?” Grace asked. “Will I get to live where all the rich people live?”

They all laughed when she asked this, one of them saying, “oh, suuure, that would work out great:

“Can’t you just see Margaret now?” Randall said. “Hey honey, look what I got, a little Romanian whore, I’m going to adopt her, hell, why not, Jason gave her to me as a present for my forty-third birthday.”

One of the other men asked her with a leering grin, “Hey, will you let your daddy’s friends fuck you if it would help your daddy in his job?”

“If he wants me to, sure”, she replied. “I’ll do anything he says.”

She was getting more scared every minute. It did not make any sense whatsoever. If he became the governor he could do anything he wanted without her help, why should his friends care anything about having sex with her? But then again she never could understand why anybody did anyway. She certainly did not get anything out of it. She damned sure never enjoyed it.

Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, it happened. Without another word, Randall grabbed her and started ripping her clothes off, leaving her naked, her tiny breasts showing under the moonlight, the beginning growth of pubic hair barely visible. Then he shoved her, but she fell to the ground at the feet of one of the other men. They were all yelling and screaming with laughter when he picked her up and pushed her to the next man. Then they started hoisting her up, tossing her up in the air, from one to the next. After Randall got her for the fourth or fifth time, he just let her slip through his arms, and she fell to the ground with a thud. She lay there, crying, wanting to get up and try to run away, but afraid to move. Then, Randall commanded her to stand up. She did so, but slowly, in pain. She could not hide her pain, or her terror. She could no longer even attempt to do so, or hold back her tears.

“That’s the way I like it”, Randall said. “I get no pleasure whatsoever out of them when they’re fucked up on something. I love it, when they see and know everything that’s going on and can pretty well figure out everything that’s coming. Just look at those eyes. Tell me that’s not priceless.”

He then undid his pants and let them fall, then removed his underwear to reveal the largest erection she had ever seen, throbbing and straining against the sky. They were all dropping their pants, in fact, and soon they were again passing her around, roughly, from one to the other, one last time.

By the time they were finished, she was in the most pain she had ever experienced. She could not move a muscle. She was bleeding from the throat, from the rectum, and from her vagina. She could not help coughing but it hurt even worse when she did, and hurt actually when she even breathed. She was naked and alone. It was nearing daylight now, the campfire was out, and she could hear two of the men talking. They seemed to be off somewhere in the distance. She strained to try to hear them, but their words were as blurred as her vision. She felt a sharp, sudden pain at the back of her head, and then she went numb.

She almost seemed to be outside of herself by the time somebody picked her up, and she actually thought that she was still on the ground even after someone lifted her up. She could feel them moving her, but it still did not seem real. She was almost floating. They were doing nothing more than guiding her in a certain direction, a place of utter darkness, and noise.

She could vaguely hear the car running and felt herself moving though at the same time still inside this strange coffin, surrounded by darkness. She felt something metal, and something else that was plastic, long things with metal hooks of some sort. Her stomach felt like it wanted to explode but could not. She tried to be still, and quiet, not because she wanted to, but because she could do nothing else.

When she stopped moving, she had long stopped being afraid. Now she felt merely a strange sense of curiosity. Why did she feel so strange, so light, so sick, and yet so peaceful? She was so tired. She was curious about so many things, but she no longer cared what the answers were. Maybe one day she would find out what they were, maybe soon. If not, then it probably did not matter.

She stopped moving, but she seemed suspended, floating, with no sense of direction. She could now feel nothing, not even the pain. The dizziness was gone too, and so was the sickness. She felt tranquil, for the first time in a long time. Soon, her feelings transcended even this strange tranquility. She felt nothing. She was happy, but she felt nothing. She was fading. She could see nothing, could hear nothing. Then, just as suddenly, she felt an onrush of air and blinding light, as she floated, and then she flew, high, like a bird that flew without thought, with no sense of urgency or direction, just flew with no concern, just flew, until she stopped flying and landed in the thick growth of bushes.

The children told her to be quiet, not to speak, not even to whisper, and to try not to breathe. She should not move. After an hour or so she had to move, however, as she was smothering in the bushes, she wanted to breathe again, and so she caught her breathe. The girls were watching her, and they were smiling, but they were smiling in a sad way. Something was sniffing at her, a dog maybe, or some other kind of animal. She opened her eyes. Oh, it was a rat, she realized. As it sniffed her it reared up on its hind legs and leaned its forepaws on her thighs. There was another one sniffing under her arm.

“Hans and Franz”, the little blonde haired girl said. The little Cambodian girl just nodded her head in agreement. Probably could not speak English, or Romanian. But the third girl looked to be Russian. She looked the saddest. She seemed not to have been here quite as long. Grace seemed to think she knew her, but was not sure. So many had come and gone, sometimes after just a few days.

Hans and Franz did not seem to be sure what to do. They just kept sniffing her, curiously, even after Grace rose up. They just backed away, kept their distance, but kept their eyes peeled on Grace. Grace saw the hair, and pulled it toward her. She pulled it toward the clearing, toward the light. The eyes were gone, replaced by strange worms that she had seen before in the orphanage, when she had sneaked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. Someone had donated a roast, but it had to be cleaned before it could be eaten. No one could eat that. Therefore,, she went back to her cot before she was seen and got into trouble. She would just have to wait until they cleaned the meat. They would cook it, and then, well, she would just have to share it with the others.

She looked at the Russian girl, the one she was sure she had seen before today. Maybe it had been three or four months ago, but Grace remembered she was always crying. She had never seen her smile. She could never learn her words right, or the proper way to say them. She was pretty, but she was stubborn, said Nadia. She was gone just after two weeks.

Now she there she was, rotten and swollen. The rats had torn her apart. Hans and Franz had been with her for some time and had had their fill of her. They hungered now, for fresh meat. Grace heard voices talking, telling her to leave, to walk. She seemed to know which way to go. She walked, but she heard crying. She turned and saw the girls. They looked at her. They did not smile now. They just watched her. She looked around, back into the bushes, and she could see nothing but bones. She turned back and began walking. There was a man standing there in a great big dark gray robe with a hood over his head. She could not see his face, but she knew that he was waiting for her. His bright red eyes seemed to burn right through her.

She knew it was a steep hill, but she did not care. She knew she could not walk up the hill. She had to go down even though it was so steep. She slipped and fell once, and went a long way but that was all right. She just laid there for some time, and then she got up. It was grassy, with bushes, but there were rocks too. She missed them. She rose and walked. The fall did not hurt her at all, and the man was waiting for her, the man in the robe.

She knew that she was not to talk to the man. He did not talk to children. He did not talk to anyone. If you asked him anything, it would be pointless. He would not answer you, and even if he did, it would be a simple yes or no answer. Grace already knew all the answers, the only thing she did not know was the reasons, and she did not want to know the reasons. She was not afraid of them. She just did not care to know them.

She walked by the man, and kept walking. She knew that he was right behind her, and so she walked. She walked through the woods. She walked through the field. She walked down the gravel road. She walked down the highway. She walked. She walked into the light. She looked around and the man was gone. She did not know where she was. She did not care. She did not know where her home was anymore but she knew she would be there soon.

Grady was a big man with a heart of stone, and the even more proverbial veins of ice water, but he just stood there with his mouth agape. He was not sure what to say, or whether he should say anything at all.

“I survived, but forgot all of this, until four years later”, she said. “I was sixteen, and that was my first memory, my birthday party. My foster parents and siblings were standing around as I blew out the candles on my cake. Then I started screaming and it all came back to me. It was like a flood rushing into my brain”.

“Imagine it, Grady. Think about what that would be like, to wake up one morning in a hospital, with no memories of anything but your name and where you came from, nothing at all. You have a new life, with a new family that loves you. You go to a private class where you make straight A’s and soon you are ready to go to public school. You have brothers and sisters, and you do all the things together that a normal family does. You go to ball games and movies, you go out to eat on Saturdays and gossip about boys, even though the idea of sex makes you feel uncomfortable for some nagging reason you don’t really understand. Boys like you, but you don’t trust them, even the ones you think you kind of like.

“Then, one day, suddenly, for no reason that could possibly make any sense, four years of memories suddenly resurface, all at once, in an instant, and you collapse. And when you wake up, you hear’- she stopped it at this. There was no need to go any further. Grady knew the rest anyway. How she underwent psychiatric therapy, to silence the voices, voices she still heard sometimes in her sleep, which still woke her up at night. Still, she continued her schoolwork, and somehow, in some way, managed to qualify for a college grant.

“Randall Morrison”, Grady said. “Are you sure about that? And the other men. Do you remember anything about them, their names, or their faces? My God! Morrison is-“

“Dead. I know.”, she said. “Killed in a plane crash, on a business trip to New Delhi, in ’96. I remember well, it was the summer after I graduated from high school. I cried when I heard that, because I knew then I would never have the opportunity to face him. For him to face me, to look me in the eyes. I like to think that he found out about my survival and lived in fear of discovery for every second after that until his death. But I’ll never know for sure.

“As for the other men, no, they are a blur”, she continued. “Except for the one called Jason, and he’s not that clear either. I looked for him on the passengers’ manifest of that flight, but there was no Jason. And I never knew his last name. But believe me, if he’s alive, I will find him, eventually. I want to thank him for being such a shoddy killer. You see, I’m positive that he’s the one that shot me in the head that night, but evidently the bullet was fired at just such an angle that it grazed off my thick skull. Luckily for me there was just enough blood for him not to be able to notice.”

“And what about the house? The people”

“I have no idea. They are probably gone by now, that’s been seventeen years ago. I only saw the outside of the place, just that one night, but I wasn’t paying that much attention. Most of the time we were kept in the basement, just shuffled in and out of the outside steps to and from the basement, usually at night, into a waiting van, with the windows covered. We never even saw the inside of the house.

“But make no mistake, they are still there, if not in that house, then in another one, maybe in a different city. Oh, I’m sure the faces have all changed, upstairs and downstairs, but they are still around. The girls too, not just in the house, but in the cities, at night, just waiting for the right code to respond to with a practiced, eager smile.”

Grady was taking all this in without responding, but he obviously had something on his mind. He was probably just thinking of the right way to say it, because it was probably not going to be a welcome suggestion. Grace had come too far to be diverted. She was tired of the constant vicious circle of drug abuse and prostitution, and methadone clinics. That was the only result of the diversion, the movie reviews, the home and garden pieces, the human-interest stories that held less interest to her than they probably did her readers. She was tired of fucking her landlord for her rent and utilities and her other bills, tired of sucking mangy old dicks for the proper clothes to wear, and she was especially tired of pretending she was an investigative journalist when she was obviously a charity case. She was tired of giving Grady a piece of pussy, and feeling as though she owed it to him. More than anything else, she was tired of hearing Grady tell her he loved her.

Love was something that you felt when you wanted a piece of ass or a blowjob. Love was lust wrapped in a smile inside of an ego. Love was something you expressed when you should have said that you’re sorry. Love was an excuse, and like all excuses, it was a lie.

“So do you have something for me, Grady, or not?”, she asked. “I’ve set it up where I’m more or less accepted as an aging dancer, looking for one last desperate chance to graduate into the semi-respectable world of hustling drinks. But I have to know somebody will be there to make it worth my while. Because there is a connection, but I need to know the juice is on when I need it.”

“I have an idea”, he said, and he started walking.

“Another flower show, Grady?”, she asked. “Kind of the wrong time of the year for that, ain’t it?”

“No”, he replied. “But you are Romanian. And look at you. That dyed black hair is perfect. And that snake tattoo, the one on your ankle. The pierced nose, the tonque.”

“Yeah, I was thinking of splitting it, but I’m not sure I’m ready to go that route”, she said. “What about it? And what does that have to do with Romania?”

“Dracula”, he replied.

“Oh, that”, she said. “You know how many times I’ve had to”-

“Hear me out, because this might be right up your alley”, he insisted. “There’s a club here that happens to be a Goth hang-out. It’s called The Crypt. The police are always having it under surveillance, because of reports of underage patrons. But they’ve never been busted, or fined. Yet, it’s said to be a clearing house for drugs and mob money. Now, get this. It’s rumored that the owners have connections to the Russian Mafia.

“Some of those names you mentioned. Grozhny. Mikhail. Nadia. Those names sound very familiar”

“Well, those are common Eastern European names”, she replied. “But Grady-this is my story. This is the same thing I proposed to you two months ago.”

“I don’t remember that”, he said with the utmost sincerity. “So, do you want the assignment or not?”

“Do I have to fuck you for it?” she asked.

“Depends”, he said. “First I need to know something. Who knows your by-line, besides you and me?”

“Well, Judy”, she said. “Howard, of course. Then there’s-“

“Not people here, dammit”, he replied. “I’m talking about people in your life, or that you’ve met, worked for, associated with, people that”-

“That I’ve fucked”, she said.

“Anybody”, he said. “Your landlord, your”- but suddenly the phone rang, and he picked it up in exasperation.

“Yes, what is it?” he demanded. “Hell, I don’t care, you decide. What face, his face is gone. Okay, so the other one is bloodier. Look, I-yes-ok then, let’s do this, a before and after, how’s that?”

He looked at Grace and rolled his eyes as the person on the other end talked and seemingly rambled on with some editorial question that evidently needed Grady’s approval.

“Look, here’s what I think. I think we should just show his picture, his last one, the one most people would like to remember him by. His family and friends don’t want to see that, and Mrs. Baldwin doesn’t want any controversy, or lawsuits. If you know somebody in the rag business that might be interested, feel free. Just make sure our name isn’t connected to it.”

Grace waved her hand around, and though Grant saw it, he ignored her, and pushed the button on his desk phone long enough to remind his secretary he did not want to take any more calls until further notice, unless, like he said before, they were important calls, meaning really important calls. Or from Mrs. Baldwin, of course. Or his wife. Or his children. Or his proctologist.

“I could do that for you, I need the money”, Grace said. “I know a tabloid editor that-“

“That knows your by-line, I fear”.

“Oh-that, yeah, right”, she said. “Look, Grady, word gets around. I never told anybody, but shit, everybody around here knows I went to college and majored in journalism. When I profiled The Office Lounge two years ago, what else could anybody think since I happened to be working there at the time, then quit just days before the story was published? These kinds of people aren’t morons, you know.

“That’s exactly what worries the fuck out of me”, he replied. “You shouldn’t be working here in this town, because everybody knows you, and an alias would be useless to you. You’ll never get a job in one of these places. If you did, that’s the best possible indication that they are either legitimate, or using you to put up a front you will never see behind.

“But what if you actually go in as a reporter looking for a story? If you work it right, you can really ruffle some feathers. But you would be safe, because you’re not hiding anything, so if something happens to you, it would raise questions.”

“Are you serious?”, she asked. “So, I’m supposed to go in there, to this Goth Club, and just casually start asking questions about the owners’ ties to the Russian mob, and to prostitution and international sex slave rings.”

“No, you just go in to do a series of reports about the Goth lifestyle simple as that. You find out in the meantime all you can about the owners, about all the major players that hang out, talk to them off the record. Of course, they’re going to lie to you, but maybe somewhere along the way, you’ll learn something useful. Most important, you’ll make contacts. Contacts that might be willing to spill a lot more than you might think they will. But you have to be patient. You have to earn their trust.”

“You’re wrong about one thing, Grace”, he then said. “Some of these people, not all of them, but some of them, more of them than you might think-are very much morons.”

Grace pondered the proposal for some time. It was not exactly what she had in mind. Still, her association with Grady was such that she realized that it was probably the best chance she would ever get. It might possibly put her into close proximity to what she wanted. To the people she was after. Even if it turned out they were not involved with this Goth Club whatsoever-hell, it was still a real job, an actual professional opportunity. Sure, she was hardly likely to win a Pulitzer or a Peabody, but still-

“I’ll take it”, she said. “I’ll take the pictures too. It’ll save you the trouble of turning me down for an advance.”

“Okay, dammit, but they didn’t come from me. Just go down and tell Mabel I sent you for the pictures. She’ll know what you mean. But once they leave this building, remember, they didn’t come from anybody here, got it?”

“I got it, Grady, damn, don’t you know by now you can trust me?” she said.

“Okay, then”, he said as she started for the door. “And be careful, and keep in touch”, he said. “Don’t worry about a deadline, take your time. And if you need anything, let me know. I got tons of petty cash lying around here, and it’s getting moldy. The money from the pictures ain’t going to last that long, so if you need anything, we’ll consider it seed money.”

“Damn, Grady, thanks”, she said.

She did not really know what to say. The kind of story she was technically being sent to cover ordinarily wouldn’t warrant that kind of investment. On the other hand, since she was going in openly as a reporter, she would not have the luxury of investing a lot of time. She would have to work smart, and fast. She would have to ruffle some feathers, all right.

“I really do care a lot about you Grace”, he said. “I know you think that’s just a line of shit, and I can see why. But, it’s a fact, I really do.”

She smiled at him, and moved towards the door.

“You care about me now, huh?”, she said. “It’s gone from ‘love’ to ‘care’, You’re getting better, Grady, you’re actually coming around, I’m impressed. Now, just go on a diet and start working out. You look disgusting.”

She said this with a playful smile. A well practiced, playful smile. Grady smiled back, as she went out the door. After she left, he called his receptionist, who connected him with Mabel, down in the tombs, and told her to expect Grace Rodescu, who would be taking the pictures of the unfortunate Mr. Milton, whom someone had murdered, shot in the head, and multiple times in the torso.

When he was through with that, he told Jeanne, the receptionist that he would be leaving for the day, and would not return until after the weekend. He then asked her to connect him to his assistant editor, Charlie, whom Grady would put in charge until he returned. He then made his final call of the day, and waited patiently for an answer.

“Yeah, it’s me-Grady”, he said when Charlie finally answered. “I’m going to be working on a story I think you might be interested in.”

He looked down and saw the light flashing. He looked at the clock. It was his fucking wife, no doubt. She always called around this time, as smooth as clockwork. Luckily, he remembered to turn off the ringer for this call, because this one he most definitely could not allow anyone to be interrupt. The man was agitated. He hated reporters. Grady knew that. What could he possibly be doing that would be of interest to him? He was a busy man.

“I know you’re a busy man, Jason” Grady said, “you’re also a lousy fucking shot.”


VIII.

Father Khoska kneeled before the altar of the crucified Christ. He dreaded the prospect of seeing Grace. For all of these years, he had kept too many secrets for too long. After all, she had been a mere child, and one who had been through some kind of ordeal the likes of which it sickened his soul to think. Things he would previously have been unable to fathom.

He had taken her, protected her, and tried his best to heal her, but he could not keep her. He found her a family, who took her in. He got involved in her life again, when her memories resurfaced. He found her counselors and tutors, and shepherded her entrance into and through university.

He could fight all her battles with all of her enemies, and win them all, but he could not protect Grace from her own inner demons. Truthfully, she had lost that battle years ago. The world to Grace was like a stagnant pool of filth and decay, one in which she swam unknowingly, and when she surfaced from time to time, and searched a way out, the same malignant, demonic entity always grabbed her and drug her back down under.

Now she was after them again. She had sent him a letter, saying that she needed his help, one last time. After that, it would finally be over, finally. After that, nothing would matter. Maybe then, she could finally live a normal life. She knew she could never totally do that. She could never love a man, or a woman, but she knew how to make them love her, if just for a time. Perhaps someday she could find someone that would love her permanently, and they could start a family.

They would have to adopt children, of course, as Grace was incapable of having children. Her badly damaged womb could never conceive a child, let alone carry one full term. Nevertheless, if she could adopt a child, or more than one, maybe three or four, she knew she would be happy. Maybe as a mother, she could become whole, could finally achieve some semblance of true healing.

At any rate, she would prefer to die than to go on living with the idea that anything else in life made the slightest bit of difference.

She would never learn. Khoska was not her mentor nor was he her confidant, not the way she imagined. He had stumbled into her life, and it had broken and humbled him in ways he had never expected. No, it was she who was his teacher. He was a mere disciple. Still, he would play the role of the Judas disciple, as distasteful as that was. He could never allow her evil to be unleashed into the world. The idea of this poor wretched entity raising children was an abomination to him. She could never hope to understand how ill advised such an idea was. The fact that she could never have children of her own was a blessing, precisely due to the way it had come about, the years of degradation, the filth, the sin. The pure unadulterated evil that permeated the world and shook his faith to the core when he met its distilled essence in the form of a twelve year old girl by the name of Grace Rodescu.

He himself had been touched by evil, had been compromised by it, had been forced to abide by the rules of the evil one. When he had come to America, as a young priest some fifty years ago, he had been commissioned by Gheorgie Gheorgiu Dej to gather information on Americans of Romanian descent, and most especially on the Romanian exile communities in America, especially those that lived in the DC and surrounding areas. He did so with a heavy heart, but he did so, he told himself, with the best of intentions. He provided a valuable service to the embassy in Washington, information on the political activities of the exiles, and most especially, on those that retained contact with families and associates within the old country.

One time he heard how some relatives of this one or that one had died, or been thrown in prison on one or another trumped up charge, or simply disappeared, as actually was more often than not the case. Khoska knew in his heart he had been at least partially responsible for this, but reassured himself that these arrests and disappearances would have happened anyway in most cases, despite the fact that most such contacts maintained within the exile community were innocent, inconsequential, and the charges against most if not all of them were totally without merit.

However, when an unknown assailant gunned one of the higher ups in the exile community, right outside the unfortunate man’s home while he was leaving for work, he began seriously questioning his ties to the regime, to his unholy alliance with Securitate. It was while Dej lay dying of cancer. The man in question had been an outspoken critic of the regime. Outside of this, there was no reason for his murder. The man had no contacts with criminal gangs, was a law-abiding American citizen, paid his taxes, contributed to the church and to charity, but also, alas, very generously did likewise to anti-communist non-profits engaged in propaganda against Dej and his band of thugs.

He lobbied fiercely against the regime, and spoke openly against them. And when he heard through the Romanian grapevine that Dej lay dying, he publicly rejoiced, threw a celebration that amounted to a block party, and declared that Gheorgie Gheorgiu Dej, the communist puppet of Soviet totalitarianism, was getting a mere foretaste of the eternal damnation in hell that soon would come his way.

Khoska did not relay this, mainly as he felt it was no more than a matter of bad taste, though it was also, sad to say, in his opinion unfortunately accurate. Khoska had received a moderate stipend from the government, through Securitate, which he used mainly to the benefit of the church, his church, the Church Of The Blessed Sacrament. The church, of course, was nothing without the people, and so he saw to the needs of the people. He saw to their spiritual needs, of course, but he also saw to their more immediately desperate, if transient, temporal needs. He did this, unbeknownst to them, courtesy of the government of Romania.

Unbeknownst to Securitate, however, he did more. He kept information on the activities of their agents within the US. They did not confide in him, of course, but it was easy to see what they were doing. They were not in the business of stealing US government or military secrets, as they did not have the means at that time to compete with the Soviets in that regard. They did however provide a source of constant danger to the exile community. Khoska knew well who they all were, and he knew to be wary of them. He had a way of making it known who should not be spoken around freely, without tipping his hand or compromising his position one way or another.

They were criminals and thugs, but also they were family men and careerists, and dedicated after their own manner to in some cases the communist ideology, or to the government of Dej, or to simply promoting and protecting their own self-interests within the regime. Many of them secretly hated Dej, and wanted to leave, seek asylum in America. Khoska encouraged them to do so once he was certain of their sincerity.

After all, it was Securitate who had themselves encouraged him to seek asylum, to immigrate to America, to become a permanent legal alien resident, and then a naturalized citizen. For him, the process was remarkably swift, and easy. He was after all providing valuable information on the activities of the regime, which he had learned, he told the Americans, from family members of persecuted dissidents. Actually, he had learned it from Securitate, but the Americans were not aware of that. They knew he was telling the truth, because, in most cases, they already knew the details. Because he was desperate to leave Romania, he played along, albeit with a heavy heart.

After some time he learned of the death of Gheorghiu Dej, and the later ascension of the strange little man named Nicolae Ceaucescu, whom Khoska had met only once. He was a clownish figure, a bit of a blowhard, but obviously insignificant, a paltry yes man. His wife Elena was little more than an ignorant peasant, were it not for the fact that she was burning with an ambition that was similar to a hidden lust. Now, upon Dej’s death, Nicolae Ceaucescu would ascend to the head of the Romanian state, and Khoska watched his career with amazement.

His stand as a maverick leader of the Warsaw Pact in the face of Soviet aggression and their unreasonable demands, his constant meddling in foreign affairs, his massive foreign aid program, which soon grew to be the fourth largest in the world. Ceaucescu was turning out to be the joker in a satanic deck of cards, and it worried Khoska. But he soon found himself being pushed out of the circle, and the more he was avoided, and ignored, the easier he started to breathe.

The fact was the regime no longer needed his services. Romania was enjoying a status of diplomatic relationship with America that Dej could never have conceived of, despite the fact that he too, as an avowed hard line Stalinist, would come to have troublesome relations with the Khruschev regime. In fact, rumors circulated to the effect that the death of Georghie Georghiu Dej might well have been the result of a secret irradiation of his person conducted while on a visit to Moscow.

Ceaucescu, though seemingly a fool, proved far more deft in his dealings with the Soviets. Far from being manipulated by the Soviets, or intimidated by them, he expressed a degree of independence from them that was wholly unheard of amongst Soviet satellites. He would not go the route of Yugoslavia or Albania, however. Under him, Romania would retain its status within the Warsaw Pact, yet would be a constant embarrassment and source of worry for Moscow.

Because of this, Securitate agents stationed at the embassy in Washington operated with a good deal of discretion in the way they dealt with the exile communities, insofar as what they could learn of their contacts at home. This made Khoska’s treacherous job much easier. That was very troubling to him. It became harder to play a double game. Securitate started to view his previously understandable caution with a great deal of suspicion. Soon, the Romanian American community started likewise viewing him with an equal and alarming degree of suspicion, it seemed.

No longer did those of the Romanian community turn to him for aid in any important matter. His treachery and double-dealing he feared greatly had been uncovered, and he started to feel he was in danger. The money kept coming in from Securitate. However, he started to put it away. In due course of time, US intelligence agents, the FBI as well as CIA, periodically questioned him as to his own contacts in Romania, as well as those within the Romanian embassy. The world had turned on its head. After a while, the money slowed to a trickle. Then it stopped all together.

His church became less frequented. He still had old contacts within the Romanian community, but many of these as well seemed to avoid him, if not outright desert him. Word had gotten around to them as well, but it was mere unsubstantiated rumors, possibly originating from some secret directive from within the Romanian embassy. They still came to him for mass, and for spiritual guidance, but it seemed as though they feared to confide in him. No one sought his help in initiating contact with family in the old country. No one asked, nor did he offer the service. Soon, he just became an older and not so impressive figure of a priest, one who seemed almost quite the anachronism. Despite this, he retained a degree of respect-or was it fear- within the community.

He was certainly a stoic figure. He rarely saw his children, who had long moved away. His older son was an Orthodox Priest in New York, his second son likewise, in New Jersey. His oldest daughter was married to a Priest in Chicago. His younger daughter had entered a convent, and returned to Romania, where she devoted her time to the children in the orphanages. His younger son had decided against the priesthood, had entered the world of finance. He was a stockbroker in New York, lived in New Jersey, but had little contact with any of his brothers there, or with family elsewhere.

His wife had died, seven years ago, of a brain tumor. He had been helpless to comfort her through her ordeal. He was relieved when she finally died. Her faith had been greater than his had, or so it seemed. He had kept her and their children sheltered from his life and activities as a conduit of information and intelligence on the Romania community, which was becoming less and less of a community, and more of an extended family.

He saw his parish shrink each year, until it was now a fourth of what it had once been. He felt alone, unneeded, and therefore unwanted. In a sense, he did not really care. He had what he needed. His faith remained unchanged. He had acted out of necessity, for the overall good of the community. They would never understand that, of course, but thankfully, there was no need for them to have to do so. It was rumors, tales that malicious agents could easily have started in an attempt to sew discord within the parish and those it served.

He lived a life of faith and acceptance, yet he had not seen any of his grandchildren in over four years. Distance was a curse, but it was also a blessing.

That was his life when he got the phone call in 1991, from an old parishioner named Grozhny, a person he had known for all of four years. He had been an immigrant, from Romania, where he had been a card-carrying member of the electricians union. He had sought asylum. He had paid Khoska a handsome sum to help him, as a donation to the church, of course. Khoska took this at face value, and helped the man secure employment and status as a legal resident alien, then as a permanent resident. He had never as far as he knew become a naturalized citizen, but he remained in good standing, though he was a loner within the Romanian community.

He had been a hard worker and donated generously to the parish, and to various charities. He maintained an apartment in downtown Baltimore, went to mass on a somewhat regular basis, though he explained several times that his work prevented attendance on as regular a basis as he would have liked.

Though a loner, and quiet, with no friends or associates to speak of, and no wife or other family, Grozhny seemed to be a good man, a man of quiet faith and strength. He did not seem overly curious about the exile or immigrant community. In fact, he seemed to be in his own separate existence within though apart from them. He was the type of man who struck you in all these ways, and yet after he was gone from your site, you never gave him another thought. He seemed to be the type of man that made no impact or lasting impression to speak of in anybody’s life, and when you saw him, you could not help but feel that he intended for it to stay that way.

Therefore, when Grozhny called him that night in the fall of 1991, Khoska did not recognize him at first, as such calls were out of character for the man, to say nothing of the concern that he detected in the voice. He pleaded with Khoska to come to a certain place, that he was in dire need of assistance of a very delicate and confidential nature, one that he could not relay over the phone. He insisted that it was very much a matter of life and death. He also stated that Khoska should bring all such sacred items as was possible, as this was a matter of a spiritual nature, and that he should please tell no one he was coming, or that he had contacted him.

He feared the worse. There were elements within the exile community that would definitely seek vengeance upon him if it was known of his past association with Securitate, but that was more than twenty five years ago. His relationship with the Ceaucescu’s had been less than cordial, in fact it had been non-existent. He felt he had succeeded in unraveling all ties to that vile government, but rumors had the habit of evolving from the status of legend and myth to accepted truth, and old enmities within the community died hard. He wondered whether his family might be in danger. His children had all started their own separate lives, his youngest child was in college, but that is not to say they might not be in danger. His wife, though she was unaware of his extracurricular activities outside the parish, might well be vulnerable all the more due to her ignorance.

He left that night fully with the intention of meeting his death. If so, he would go with a feeling of justification, in that he had done all in his power to walk that thin line that marked the boundaries of betrayal and necessity. At least, he could meet his fate and spare his family the danger of being victims of vengeance, or so he hoped. In the event he disappeared, he had seen to their future welfare to at least some extent.

On the drive up to the mountains of West Virginia, he offered a prayer to the Blessed Mother, to Saint Paul and the Archangel Michael, and to the crucified Lord. He carried with him the Blessed Sacrament, the lord of hosts. He was prepared to meet his death this night, but what he met was beyond his imagination.

Grozhny met him outside the doors of the secluded cabin, after what seemed to be an interminably long drive up a gravel road that seemed to lead the way to an eternal destination. He had wondered whether he had taken the right exit, or had missed a turn at one point or another. True, Grozhny warned him that it would be a long drive, but he was growing very weary, and anxious. Then, he finally saw Grozhny. He noted the sullen look on his face, but could not make out his full expression until he removed himself from the vehicle.

“So, are we alone?”, Khoska asked in trepidation.

“In a manner of speaking, we are”, Grozhny replied. “But no, we are not I am afraid. There is something in here you must see.”

Khoska entered the cabin behind Grozhny, resigned to whatever fate awaited him.

“Am I to understand that this place here belongs to you, my friend?”, Khoska asked.

“Yes, it is mine”, the man replied. “It is safe up here, as no one but myself knows of it. But I need your help, in the most desperate way”.

Grozhny then flipped the light switch, and what Khoska saw next made him gasp in shock, in fear, and in utter horror.

“Who the hell is she?” he demanded. “My God, man, what have you done?”

The girl was obviously naked, though wrapped in a blanket, looking out with the catatonic expression in her eyes of a person who had given her soul over to some form of darkness and evil that didn’t quite know yet what to do with her, and so just patiently bided it’s time.

“I saw her stumbling along the road in a remote area of Maryland, and so I brought her here”, Grozhny explained. “It had been my job to make sure that she was properly dead. But she was not at the site where she was supposed to be, and so I set out looking for her. I happened across her, walking down the road, seemingly unaware, pretty much as you see her now. I have had her here now for four days. I can’t get her to respond.”

“Make sure she was properly dead?”, Khoska demanded. “What is this? Who is she, and why was she to die, for what reason? She looks all of ten.”

“She is twelve”, Grozhny explained. “ Her name is Grace Rodescu. You know the name?”

“Rodescu, yes, I have heard this name, but I don’t know her and I doubt I know her family, but you still haven’t explained to me what is to be accomplished through her death. Do her parents owe someone some money, have they betrayed a confidence, what? If you want me to help you, I have to know everything.”

“I must first have your assurances of absolution”, Grozhny stated. But Khoska was adamant.

“Never”, he said. “I do not know what you have done or what your role in this girls life is or why she is in the state of mind she is, but from the look of her condition I can only assume that she has been chosen to pay for her families crimes, whatever they are, and that is an abomination. If you want absolution, then you must earn it, and you must start with the truth, all of it.”

At this, the man named Grozhny broke down and began to cry, inconsolably. He obviously could not speak. The girl just looked out, with no expression. She seemed to be an uninhabited shell, save for her shallow breathing and faint heartbeat. Khoska knew he was looking at a creature in a state of shock. Whatever she had been through must have been profound, yet she looked as though she were perfectly clean for someone who had been walking down a road in the middle of the countryside, supposedly left there to die.

“Where are her clothes?” Khoska asked. “I know that you bathed her, could you not at least make certain she was decently dressed before I arrived?”

“She has no clothes”, Grozhny explained. “They were taken from her.”

He was now finally able to speak between sobs, yet obviously still distraught.

“So, on top of everything else, she was raped”, Khoska said in disgust. “I demand now that you tell me who is responsible for this child’s condition. Otherwise I have no choice but to lay the blame upon your account.”

“I am partially responsible”, he said. “We all are. Mikhail, Nadia, all of us. We made her what she is, her and the others. Yes, Father, there are others, many more of them. It is a business, a very lucrative business, and I have been paid well for my part in it. I never looked at them like they were people, like they were even human, to me, and the others, she and they were a commodity, one that sometimes must be disposed of when it no longer becomes useful.”

He stopped, for a moment, became choked, could not speak. Khoska was incensed, enraged, but did not want to discourage any further revelations. He told the man to not fear to speak freely, this was a sin that needed to be released through the words and the light of truth, if to no one but him.

“I am the one who took her the first time, while she was high on heroin”, Grozhny admitted, and then he cried again, for a minute, but through some determination and force of will, forced himself to continue. It was his duty to “break her in”, as he put it. Nadia insured that she was fit for service afterwards, and so she became like most of the others, a prostitute, a child of the night.

“Some problem transpired, but I do not know the details, only that she was to be eliminated. I was to insure that the job was done. She had one last service to perform and it was to be her last one. I was to insure the matter was settled.”

“She was to be sold to someone who was to rape her and then kill her, probably someone who wished to purchase a young child for that very purpose”, Khoska concluded. “Just tell it the way it is, man. Who was he? Or was it a he, or was there more than one?”

“I don’t know who it was or how many”, Grozhny said. “It was none of my concern.”

Khoska exploded then, and slapped Grozhny squarely across the cheeks. He always considered himself a man of God, however flawed he might have been in his past, but this was beyond any reason or justification. His impulse was to kill Grozhny, and he felt no necessity to ask for forgiveness for this natural human instinct.

“Will you help me, Father?” he asked. “Will you help me to make it right for her?”

“I will help this child”, he replied. “As for you, it might well be too late to do the right thing, no matter how sincerely you might want to. I can only help you gain absolution. I can’t give it to you. I can pronounce it, but I can’t ordain it from on high. My faith is only as good as your own.”

Grozhny found his courage that night, and he told everything, but he delivered a stern warning to the aging Orthodox Priest. It was more than just Mikhail and Nadia, there were others, others who were higher up than they, others who had power and influence over people and events, people who could make laws, change them like yesterdays underwear, or discard them like the weekend garbage. If they preferred, they could simply ignore them with impunity.

“I know that I am a dead man walking”, he explained. “But I don’t care. I have had it. They will be looking for me, and they will be assuming the worse about me. They do not get to where they are in life by accepting the most innocent explanation, even if that were to happen to be the most obvious or likely one. I will not return to my apartment, and I feel sorry for my landlord when he finally unlocks the door to demand the next months rent. They will probably have to piece his body parts together before they can identify him with any assurance.

“I have killed for them before, so I know what I am talking about. I did so without qualms, without hesitation. If not for the events of the last four days, I would probably have continued doing so. But look at her.”

Khoska in fact had to force himself to look at the girl. He could barely stand to do so.

“Do you have a means of protecting yourself should you be found here?” he asked, more in concern for the safety of the girl than of Grozhny.

“Yes”, he said. “Guns, a knife, and this baseball bat” He indicated the large aluminum Louisville slugger that leaned on the edge of the fireplace by the poker. “But anything I have is good only for a malicious intruder. Believe me, were they to find me, they will kill me, and her. That is why you must stay silent about this, until I figure something out. If there is anything you can do-“

“I will leave now”, Khoska said. “But I will return, and while I am gone I will say nothing, not even to my wife. I will bring you food and medicine for her, and some clothing and I will help you in any other way that I can. We will discuss the details when I return.”

“Will you pray with me, Father?” Grozhny pleaded. Khoska was inclined to not do so, but felt obligated for the sake of the child. He prayed with Grozhny, and he blessed the child, who remained unaware, staring into the darkness of nothing.

When Khoska returned the following day, he brought clothing, food, blankets. He brought ointments and antibiotics, along with bandages and painkillers. He dressed the girl, and then set her by the fire of the fireplace, as it was a cold night, and she stared into the flames in a seeming serenity. He handed her a doll he had thought to bring along, one that had belonged to one of her daughters at about the age of six. Khoska felt it would be a comfort to her. He seemed to be right. She clutched the baby doll, in her arms, and up to her chest. He felt this was a good sign.

“So, what do you intend to do with her?” he asked. “You can’t keep her forever, you know.”

“I want to adopt her”, Grozhny explained. “I hoped that you might help me make that possible.”

“You cannot be serious”, he replied. “You who have raped that child and facilitated her degradation in every possible filthy way, now you want to adopt her, and you with no wife? How do you think that would look right there? What will happen should she regain her senses and remember you? Moreover, how will you protect her, since as you yourself have said, you are a man with a price on his head? Dead man walking I think is the way you put it?”

Grozhny stayed silent as he looked at the flames, at the girl who set silent and staring into the burning embers of the oak log as it flared up periodically, and crackled with the intensity of a heat, holding the baby doll ever tighter to her chest.

“Talk to me, man”, Khoska continued. “What, do you want to marry her, will that be next? You are forty-eight, and she is what, twelve you say? What will you do with her? You do not seem to me to be the fatherly type, I see no good in this idea, and I cannot sanction it, I am sorry.”

“I care deeply for her”, Grozhny said. “She has awakened feelings within me that I never knew I had. I never had anyone. My father was a drunken bastard, my mother a harsh, cold unfeeling shrew, my brothers and sisters all bullies and hooligans. I had to fight every day growing up just to earn every scrap of dignity I could pretend I had. We had nothing, were nothing. When I left and made a life for myself, this is all I took with me.

“What I took away from her would have been taken by others had I not been there. At least I saved her, or God saved her through me, if you prefer. There had to be some reason for that. I want to give her something more than just an inheritance of shame and filth. I want to give her a life, and a chance to be the child she should be, while she has what little time there might be left for that. If she ends up loving me in any way, of course that would make me happy. But if she does not, then that is the cross that I must bear.”

Khoska knew that he would not get through to this man tonight, so he decided to talk to him about his own life. He had brought some wine, and invited the man to share it with him.

“It is good Bulgarian wine”, he said, “Much better than the Romania shit that unfortunately is made in our country for the most part these days. Come let us have a drink together, and maybe we can sort this shit out. Of course, you should be a part of her life, but we have to be rational about this. She needs a family setting, a father and a mother, maybe some brothers and sisters who are supportive and caring, not the kind of family you had. Yet in time, who knows what God has in store. Have some faith, Grozhny. Come, let’s have a drink.”

They went into the kitchen and sat at the table and drank, and talked, about fishing, about hunting, and about family. They talked about God, and they talked about the oil fields of Ploesti, a filthy place near where Khoska was raised, and where Grozhny had briefly worked. There had been a fire, at one of the oil wells, that threatened to spread, but they had managed to contain it. A Hungarian demolitions expert, trained by an American, finally put it out. Gheorgiu Dej ordered the whole affair to be hushed up, and so to this day, it is a relatively unknown occurrence. No one there ever forgot it, but no one ever spoke of it, not even the day after. It was as though it had never happened, despite the fact that it was several months before the government replaced the well.

“Had that fire not been contained, and eventually extinquished”, Grozhny observed, “had it spread to the other wells, to the city, or to the refinery-all of which at first seemed a real possibility-all of Europe might have been blanketed with the dense black smoke of the resultant inferno.”

“Worse, according to the peace terms with the Soviets, made after the war, Romanian would still have been obliged to produce the standard quota of oil, which would have meant further rationing of domestic supplies. As you are no doubt aware, the damned SovRoms took all they could take as it was, and left us with little.

As he talked, Khoska found himself remembering the day during the war that the Allied forces had bombed the refinery in Ploesti, which provided the bulk of the Nazi regimes’ oil supply. He could still vividly remember that day, and when he caught the scent of something burning, he began to think it was his imagination. Then he saw the billowing smoke, and cried “Fire”.

He ran into the family den of the cabin, and saw the baby doll laying amidst the flames, burning, melting, it’s eyes having completely disappeared into a gelatinous mass of featureless face, the head expanding and contracting in different areas, the brown colored mock hair at the top of the head draining down over the front of the face. It sizzled and whistled as though in mock agony, as the child stared intensely into the flames. He pulled at her, as Grozhny tried to remove the toy with a fireplace poker. He stopped, then picked up the Louisville slugger, and prodded and pounded until the flames died down, billowing whiffs of smoke permeating the cabin.

They all began to cough, as Khoska bent down and attempted to shield the fragile Grace, who sat and blinked her eyes, which began to water as well from the irritant smoke. She breathed deeply but sharply, as her eyes glimmered. Khoska saw then the distant signs of consciousness, for the first time, but it was a distant dull light as from a faraway place.

“Grace, what is the matter?” Khoska asked her. “Answer me. What made you do that?”

The child looked into his eyes, sternly, though not defiantly, and answered in a cracked voice, and in an octave that was abnormally low.

“Ra-du”, she said. “Radu”.

Father Khoska felt a chill go through him as he recalled this memory for the first time in years. He glanced up at the icon of the Christ, at the painted representation of blood that flowed from the side and that protruded from the crown of thorns upon his brow. The blood seemed for just an instant to be flowing, but just for an instant. The Lords eyes too looked distant and unconscious, as did the girls eyes that night. That voice.

Khoska shivered. He rose, and crossed himself, and then he left. He returned to the rectory, and to his private office. It was a mess. When his wife lived she tidied up for him, but now he no longer cared. What did it matter? He liked to pretend he knew where everything was, but that was not always the case. Some things just got lost in the constant shuffle of books and papers and invoices, to say nothing of the mementoes and other items of dubious value that filled up his office. Khoska was a pack rat. However, not all things were without value.

He told parishioners, when they asked him, that there was unfortunately nothing in the Church Of The Blessed Sacrament that would qualify as a relic, with the exception perhaps maybe of Khoska himself. That was not exactly true, however, for Khoska kept a closely guarded secret within a locked room within the basement. He retrieved the key from his desk, and then proceeded downstairs, to where a locked room waited for him to open it for the first time since the death of his wife. He opened the door, and flipped on the light. The sign of the old safe greeted him. He fumbled with the lock, the combination seared into his memory. He had written it down years ago, fearful that he might forget, but he had forgotten now where he had put the paper. For now, he remembered it, but he would have to remember to write it down again. He was after all getting old, and at the age of seventy-seven, there might come a day when he would be doing well to remember his birthday.

Not this day, though.. He opened the safe and looked upon the stacks of money, money he had put away for personal emergencies, but which he had never had need of for himself. Nor did he today. There was something else in the safe, something that lay in four vials inside a box. He extracted one of the vials, blessed the remainder, and then shut back the safe. He left, then, locking the door to the room, and proceeded to return up the stairs, into the sacristy. He bowed in front of the icon of the Blessed Virgin, and crossed himself. Then he walked over to a corner, and kneeled before the statue of The Archangel Michael, who stood with sword drawn in preparation for the slaying of a dragon-like beast only partially revealed in the sculpture.

He bowed before the statue as he spread out a black cloth, into which he emptied the contents of the vial, which he then blessed with just a slight drop of holy water. He folded up the cloth, tied it into a knot, and then he placed it inside a pouch, the leather strings of which he pulled tightly shut.

As he prayed, he remembered the time he returned home after that night, so shaken he could barely concentrate on the drive home. He made it back, dead tired and exhausted but too keyed up to even think of trying to go to sleep. The girl, her eyes seemed to be reaching out to him, but from the depths of hell, and her voice. Not truly her voice at all, not even a human voice, but a mockery of one, so deep and torturous. That was the first time he had retrieved the powder since he had locked it in his private safe years before, not too long after it his late grandfather bequeathed it to him, and shipped it to him not long before he died.

His grandfather had been a Greenshirt, a supporter of the Iron Guard, and himself a disciple and a follower of that fascist organizations founder and leader, Corneliu Codreanu. The powder was allegedly the powdered bones of the man said to be an incarnation of the Archangel Michael himself. He had been killed by members of a rival fascist organization that had come to power in Romania, and then gone on to become allies of Hitler during the war. Codreanu had been imprisoned by them and then murdered, before the war, in what was said to have been the result of an attempted escape, but which had truthfully been the cold-blooded assassination of him and some followers.

His father and grandfather had fallen out over this, his father having declared the claims of Codreanus followers to be not only preposterous, but also blasphemous. That they were both fascists, both priests, and both hated the communists, were the only factors that had kept them from falling apart, maybe even coming to blows. They never spoke of Codreanu, but truthfully, they rarely spoke at all.

Then his mother had become gravely ill one night, and lay near death, and Khoska had retreated to the sacristy of his father’s little church in Ploesti to pray in silence. He fell asleep, while kneeling in front of the altar of The Blessed Virgin, and dreamed a strange dream of a great warrior armed with a blade, who dispatched a dragon. It was a short vision but it was so intense that Khoska awoke, in a fever, and ran to his mothers’ side, only to find that she had suddenly become conscious, had smiled and spoke in a weak though steady voice, saying that she was going to be well. The next morning, she was on her feet.

It was November 30th, 1938, and word soon got around a few days later that Codreanu had been killed around midnight of the previous night. He told his father of the vision, but his father refused to allow him to speak further of it. Nevertheless, his mother had told his grandfather, a fact that he had not learned until his grandfather had sent him the vials, and a letter, identifying the strange grayish white powder as having once been the bones of Codreanu.

He had made his first real use of it following that night that seemed even longer ago, in the hills of West Virginia, though it had in fact been a mere sixteen years ago. He returned home to the news that a fire in Baltimore had claimed multiple lives. The heat had been so intense that most of the bodies were beyond identification. Only two of them, in fact, had been. They were two Romanian nationals by the names Mikhail and Nadia Gromesca.

“It was horrible”, his wife remarked. “There were others, down in the basement area, but no one seems to know for sure how many, or who they were.”

“Yes”, Khoska said, “horrible.” His wife asked him what was wrong, and where he had been, to which he replied he had merely been to see to the spiritual needs of a dying associate, and he would have to return in a few weeks. He then retrieved a vial of powder and blessed it, upon which he fell into a fitful, restless slumber that lasted for all of five hours. He awoke, ate a bowl of soup and some stale bread with some tea, and then made ready for his return journey, more fearful now than he had been when he was very much unaware of the purpose of his mission.

He asked his wife if there had been any news of the fire, of any further identifications, but his wife had said that, so far as she knew, there was no further information on them. She wondered almost absently if they might have been someone they had known, perhaps former members of their parish, but Khoska told her he did not think that they were.

Oddly, it was a story that seemed to have died out as soon as it the information became public. No further mention was made of the intense fire that had ravaged the home in the upscale Baltimore suburb, which had set on five acres of land, almost completely enclosed by ashes and oaks. No mention of the numbers of bodies or any further identifications, nor a cause of the fire. It seemed as though the event had never occurred. It seemed forgotten, by all but Khoska. He knew better than to look into the matter.

He waited for two weeks to return to the cabin. Grozhny had called him every night as he had promised, and always with the report that all was well, but there was no change in Grace’s condition, though he was able to feed her. He talked to her, but she never responded to him. He had no idea who Radu was.

The night Khoska finally returned, Grozhny had not called him for two days and had not answered his calls. This worried him, and he worried more about making the trip back up to the cabin. He did so anyway, now armed with the powder. To his amazement, the child, Grace Rodescu, greeted him at the door. She smiled as though in anticipation of a day at some arcade, or a trip to the mall. She was dressed, bathed, and looked as happy as he had seen any child.

“Hi”, she said. “Who are you?”

He found this to be quite unnerving. This was definitely not right. Every instinct in his body told him to run, as fast as he could, which made him feel quite foolish.

“I am Father Khoska”, he said. “Do you not remember me?”

“Well, no, am I supposed to?” she said. “Were you dressed that way before?”

“Yes, I was,” he replied. “But it is of no consequence, you were quite exhausted when last we met. It has been about two weeks ago. I am here to see your friend Grozhny, is he inside?”

“Yes, but he is not really my friend”, she said. “He is to be my father, and maybe when I’m older we will be married. Is that why you are here? He is inside now, lying down, he is in bed. Maybe we will talk later?”

“Yes, of course”, he said, but before he could say another word, the child bounded down the hillside, as though chasing some imaginary butterfly, or on her way to meet some fantasy playmates the likes of which he could not conceive of. He wanted to caution her to stay close, but she seemed focused on her journey to whatever make believe playground she headed towards, as he went uneasily into the house.

“Grozhny, are you in there?” he said. There was no sign of life as he entered the living room, then proceeded down the hall into the guest room, which looked completely unused. He then walked into the main bedroom, and there was Grozhny, horribly beaten about the head and torso, a bloody mess, swollen and battered beyond recognition, his brains spilled out onto his pillow, his skull completely caved in.

Khoska ran into the bathroom, gagging, and vomited, his head reeling. He pulled himself up and returned to the bedroom. His terror had taken second place to his sense of urgency, but his caution almost gave way to panic when he realized what he had seen. What was he to do now? He had involved himself in this situation on a level he had never intended. If the girl had not done this thing, then who had? Moreover, why would they not have taken her, or killed her and left her there? What would become of her now? What was he to do? He had to either report this or hide it, but the consequence of either action was beyond his grasp.

He pulled himself together and called for the girl, but she was nowhere in sight, so he went to the hillside, and there he saw her, languishing by a small stream, lying on her back, one knee propped up as the leg swung from side to side. He cautiously walked down the hillside, unsure of what to say.

“Well, I found him all right”, he said, feeling even more ridiculous. “He doesn’t seem to be feeling well.”

“I didn’t think he did”, she said. “That’s okay. I know how to make him feel better. I know how to make people feel good.”

“You-do?” he stammered, but she just smiled, looking off into the distance.

“So, have you seen this Radu?” he asked her. “You mentioned his name the other night.”

She rose and looked at him, straight in the eyes for the first time.

“I did?” she asked curiously. “Who is he?”

“Well, I don’t know”, Khoska answered. “But, never mind. How would you like to go somewhere with me?”

“Okay, I guess”, she replied. “Grozhny too?”

“No, he will be coming later”, he replied. “He has some things he has to do and asked me to look out for you for a few days. He is really sick, to tell you the truth, and doesn’t want you to get close to him, he is afraid you might catch something from him.”

“Do I need to take something with me, some clothes or something, or some food?” she asked. Khoska told her to wait out in the car and he would get some things for her. She got into the car and he went inside and bundled up a few items of clothing, and extracted from the refrigerator a few things as well. He combined everything in a pile on the floor, and went one last time into Grozhny’s bedroom, where he lay, obviously dead for some time. Flies were gathering around him, and Khoska blessed him, and prayed for his soul.

He saw the baseball bat lying just off the side of the bed. When he returned to the car, the girl asked him if he had seen it, and he said no.

“I will get you another one”, he promised, marveling as he did so that he had just made the most incomprehensibly foolish promise of his entire life.

He had already arranged for the girl to stay at the home of a wealthy parishioner. The man had other children, however, and after what he had seen, he was wary now of taking her there. Not knowing what to do, he took her to the church, and told her to wait there for him, as he looked for his wife. He had no idea how he was going to explain this to her, but knew he had to think of something besides the truth.

“A twelve year old Romanian girl?” she asked. “Wherever did you come across her at? Who are her parents?”

Khoska told her the child’s parents were dead, she was an orphan, and had lost her home. A friend found her on the streets of Baltimore, wandering in a daze.

“He wanted me to assist in finding her a place to stay, he is afraid the authorities will stick her in some state run group home that is unsuitable for a young child. I promised him I would try to help, but I am unsure now what to do. She is a strange one.”

They went into the church, and to his surprise, there she was, kneeling in front of the statue of Michael the Archangel. He called her name, but she did not respond, and so he approached her cautiously, his wife following behind him.

She was gazing up into the face of the statue, as though she were bathed in a bright but soothing light, her eyes half closed, staring, but not so distant as before. For just an instant, she began to hum, but then stopped, as though someone had shushed her. She now seemed to be listening intently, but to nothing that Khoska could hear. She called her name again, but got no response.

“That poor child, she is out of her mind”, his wife said after she pulled him some distance away. “Aleksandre, is there something you are not telling me? What do you know of this child?”

“I think she came from the house that burned down outside Baltimore”, Khoska said. “But you must say nothing, Marta. She may have been victimized by some kind of criminal activity, and may be in danger, and we might be as well.”

He was amazed at how quickly this spilled from his lips. He tried to shelter his family form the seedier aspects of his life and his work, more for their own safety than for his own well-developed sense of shame, but this would after all be hard to explain away as though it were a casual event. Marta expressed a deep sadness for the child, and insisted that Khoska do all he could for her.

He got her placed in a private hospital, and after a few months, Khoska had her placed into the home of some Americans or Romanian descent, the head of the household being a man whom he knew quite well. He proceeded to adopt the child Grace Rodescu. He saw her rarely, and when she did, she seemed not to be aware of anything that had transpired, until that night of her sixteenth birthday, more than three years later. One thing Grace had never forgotten was her name. With his connections, Khoska was able to determine from Romanian orphanage records, exactly where she had been placed, and how long ago, and when she had left, and with whom. He also learned the true date of her birthday. November 30th, 1979.

Now, his wife was gone, his children were gone, and he was alone. He kneeled before the statue of Archangel Michael, which he had received unexpectedly one evening as a bequest from an old Orthodox bishop, whose church had burned down somewhere on the isle of Cyprus. There had been no explanation for it. The statue had survived the flames of the church fire undamaged. He had received it as a bequest on behalf of the Church, but he had no idea why, nor was any explanation ever given. He had received it shortly before the death of Georgiu Dej and the ascension of Ceaucescu, and would later wonder whether there might have been some connection, in some way, perhaps as a sign from God. After the murder of his parishioner, he seemed to feel a presence, a life force, emanating from the statue, for quite some time. That was when he began to question seriously his relationship to the regime.

Prior to this, he had come to consider it a necessity, for the overall good of his community, and excused his actions on those grounds. Now he started to have real doubts, serious doubts, and growing guilt. Then he received the same package from his grandfather, who had written him on his deathbed. Along with the ancient cedar box, with the vials of powdered bone, was a note, written on parchment. He rose, returned to his desk, and unlocked the small, almost hidden drawer that protruded from under the top. He lowered it, and it slid out, to reveal the note, now encased in a notebook, inside a clear plastic window. He read it, fearfully, hoping to find faith, some degree of comfort.

When the dragon rises up from the black pit of the abyss, he breathes hell from his nostrils. He slays the martyrs and gorges on the blood of saints. Treachery is his snare. He slays with guilt. He ravages faith. He revels in the weakness of the flesh. In lust and in enmity he rages and blasphemes against the Almighty Father, against the Risen Savior and His Blessed Mother. Against him none but these can prevail- the blood of the Savior, the tears of the Virgin, and the bones of the Archangel, fine like a powder. These alone with faith can stand against Radu the Unholy, The Dragon of Desolation

Khoska replaced with reverent awe the yellowed, ancient Romanian manuscript, now centuries old, from the hand of an anonymous monk. Its’ words inspired in him no hope, no faith, when he recalled the urgent call he had received from Grace Rodescu not more than four days before. As he lit the final censor of myrrh and frankincense, he could not avoid the pervading, sickening sweet scent of burning bodies, nor the sound of souls burning in anguished torment, if but from a distance, and though for just a brief instance.


IX.

Brad Marlowe had always been a nervous little man, but now he was more than nervous. His stomach was in knots, it seemed, and he was sick. He was hot and sweating, his mouth was dry and parched. He wanted a cigarette, he wanted some water, and he especially wanted to get the hell out of the predicament he was in now. Unfortunately, the police interrogators were far from finished with him. In fact, they had barely started. He had watched enough television, enough CSI and Law And Order, to know what was coming, the old good cop-bad cop routine.

The thousand dollars he had taken from his sister’s account had opened up a whole can of worms. He knew it would only be a matter of time before his nephew found the pictures. He knew that if the prostitute had been wrong, if he had contracted venereal disease from the dead girl, Mary Evans, and not from her, if Mary Rodescu proved clean of the disease, it would not take long before the truth would come out. Just as his sister had warned him years ago, that would ruin him forever.

She had covered for him, protected him for years. Her husband had never known, never suspected, and neither had Marlowe. Now, however, he was sure Marlowe had it in for him and would be going through his personal effects, would discover his secret perversion, his obsession, and it would be the end for him. The cops were just now getting started with him, he had explained the money was a big misunderstanding, he intended to replace it as soon as possible. Still, here he was, and they seemed to be in no hurry to go.

“Actually, Brad”, one of them said. “There seems to be some kind of misunderstanding here. We’re not really interested in the money so much, you see, we’re homicide detectives.”

Brad suddenly relaxed, breathed out a sigh of relief. They were not sex crimes investigator after all, he thought, obviously relieved. The detectives looked at each other strangely.

“So, do you want to tell us about the poison?” one of them asked. He shrugged.

“Nothing to tell”, he said. “One of those wild looking girls that my nephew used to hang out with, she come by the place one night before the rest of the family come back from the mountains. She told me the food had been messed with, as she put it, and no one should eat it. Then she handed me this envelope to give to my nephew when he come back. Just basically said the same thing. Don’t eat the leftovers.”

“So when the family came back, what did you do?”

“I told them, of course”, he said. “Then we ate, I ordered some stuff from Kentucky Fried Chicken. Marlowe didn’t eat any, said he hated that shit, the way he put it, so I offered to send out for pizza. But he was in one of his moods, and said he would make do with what was there.”

The older detective just looked at him with no visible trace of emotion, just coldly, while the younger detective, who looked to be a real ass-kind of like the one smart ass cop on CSI Miami- just looked down and took notes. When was the good cop-bad cop part coming? Brad wondered.

“So what did you do with the food, the stuff that was tampered with?” he asked.

“I locked it away”, he replied. “I guess I should have thrown it away, but I wanted to have it tested.”

“Doesn’t matter”, the cop said. “Would you like some water, some coffee? A doughnut, maybe?”

“I would really like a cigarette”, Brad said. “A light brand would be best, but the strong stuff will do, it has been a while.”

“New rules”, the asshole piped up finally. “No smoking. Somebody finally decided it really is bad for your health just to be around it. Ain’t that sweet?”

“Of course, we do bend the rules on occasions”, the older nice cop said hopefully. “Still, they do have a point. The stuff really is poison.”

“Speaking of which”, the younger cop said as he closed his folder and clasped his hands together, “we have a slight problem with your story. The leftover food that you stored had quite a bit of urine, especially in the tea, and feces, for the most part in the leftover chili. What nothing seemed to have, in even trace amounts, was arsenic. That is what killed your family, and poisoned your nephew. Good thing he just ain’t that fond of the colonel’s recipe, I guess. He ate just enough to make him real good and sick, but not enough to kill him. Sure did come awful close though.”

The young cop waited just long enough to allow it to sink in, but Brad just looked more confused by the minute, though still not as worried as he seemed to have been several minutes ago.

“So how much chicken did you eat that night, Mr. Marlowe?” he asked.

“Two pieces of the chicken”, he said. “That’s it. I ain’t even supposed to eat that. High cholesterol. I mainly ordered it for the rest of them, seeing as there wasn’t anything in the house to eat.”

“Yeah, Mr. Marlowe, you see, that is exactly what has us puzzled”, the older cop said. “If the poison had come from the restaurant, from some disgruntled employee pissed off because he got some hours cut, or had to pull a few extra shifts to make up for the other slackers, or his boss was fucking his girlfriend, or whatever, we could kind of go from there. Maybe we could assume this might be a sign we need to have the place closed down pending a further investigation. But we haven’t done so yet, because we just can’t figure out just why it was you didn’t get sick.”

“But since you didn’t really eat that much, well, I guess that might explain it.”

The asshole young cop was leering at him with suspicion.

“Hey, now wait a minute here”, Brad said, finally angry for the first time. “I thought it was decided this was a suicide, a murder suicide. I would have had no reason to do that, none whatsoever. What about the damn suicide note?”

“The one in your sister’s handwriting”, the older cop said. “Yeah, that was a damn good forgery, Brad. Where would you have learned to do that? They teach you that in mortuary school? Or is that more a natural talent?”

“Hey, I resent the hell out of that”, he said, now completely riled up. “This is my sister and nephew we’re talking about here, who the hell-“

“Calm down, Mr. Marlowe, your indignation doesn’t impress us”, the younger detective said. “For one thing, you have forged your sister’s name before, on her personal accounts, and more than once. See, we have recorded proof of it. For another thing, you have been less than forthcoming with us about why you forged the last check, and how you spent the money. We know you rented a cheap room in a seedy hotel frequented by prostitutes and their clients. so is that the story? Big sister was cramping your lifestyle so you decided to get rid of her and everybody else?”

“I-would never do that”, Marlowe hissed, and then the old cop-the good cop-slammed his fist down on the table.

“Dammit”, he said. “I guess now you would like to see a lawyer, is that what’s coming next?”

“Only if I need one, and I don’t”, he said. “But if you don’t let me out of here, then yeah, maybe I do.”

“No problem, Bradley”, the young cop, still as much of an asshole as ever, said. “Just sign this release form, stating you was offered the services of an attorney and was not coerced in any way to make an admission to any crime whatsoever. You don’t have to, of course, but it would help-well, facilitate matters”.

“You want to check my signature to the handwriting on my sister’s note, I get it”, Bradley said. “Fine, I’ll do it. I’ll write a paragraph of bullshit if you want me to, I just want to get out of this place. I didn’t do anything wrong, unless you count wasting one thousand dollars on a whore as illegal. Yeah, I did that, I haven’t been myself. My sister and brother-in-law, who by the way was my best friend, are dead, my nephew almost died, and probably blames me for it now. Wouldn’t you want to do something to get your mind off those kinds of problems? Is it that bad?”

“No, but it’s kind of stupid”, the old cop said. “But we don’t care about that. Poison is a different matter. Ok, you can go for now.”

“After you sign the release”, the younger one reminded him. Bradley reached out and slid the form over, and signed it with a flourish.

“We will be getting in touch with you, Mr. Marlowe”, he said. “Oh, and just for the hell of it, this girl you mentioned.”

“Said her name was Sierra”, he said, and then he gave a description of the girl. “They stole a bunch of stuff too, by the way, some money and jewelry, and some formaldehyde formula. I just never got around to calling the police, everything happened so fast that-“

Suddenly, he started to sob, then stopped though with some effort, as the younger cop rose and walked to the door. He opened it and told Brad Marlowe, “That will be all for now”.

After he left, the young cop, named Berry, said, “Well, what do you think, Frank?”

“I think he’s obviously hiding something”, Frank said, “but I don’t think its murder. What about you?”

“No, I don’t either”, Berry replied. “You think maybe he might be one of these guys whose system is immune to certain poisons?”

“It’s not that.” Frank said. “He was tested at the hospital. No traces of it whatsoever. No matter how immune he was, it would still show up, maybe even better than if he wasn’t immune, because his body wouldn’t break it down as fast. It would just show up as undigested, until he finally passed it. But there wasn’t enough time for that. Plus he said himself he only ate the chicken, nothing else”

“So what do we do then, go back to the restaurant, start digging around some more?” Berry suggested absently.

“Yeah, we especially look for a short order cook or maybe a shift manager with a talent for forging suicide notes of customers he barely knows if at all. Are you kidding? No, it has to be something else. And just between you and me, I’m not an expert, but I’ve seen the suicide note, and I’ve seen Brad Marlowe’s forged check. There are differences. They’re not the same. I’ll have to drop it off to handwriting analysis to make sure, along with this so-called release form, but I’m not expecting it to pan out. That only leaves one more avenue.”

“The kid?” Berry asked as he sunk down in his seat. “You can’t be serious.”

“Maybe he ate more than he meant to”, the old seasoned veteran said with a shrug. “Maybe the portions he ate had more of the poison than some of the other portions. But yeah, I think he did it. He’s not a kid, by the way, he’s twenty two. And from what I’ve been able to learn, he is kind of strange. Mysterious. A loner. Who knows, maybe a complete psycho.”


X.

Later that night, Marlowe Krovell had a horrible dream. It seemed so real, like a resurgent memory, a memory of him poisoning his family’s food, of finding them dead the next day, of himself becoming deadly sick after partaking of the same food that had killed them. He dreamed he had written the suicide note, in his mothers’ handwriting, and signing it with her signature. He could not see the note in his dream or remember what he had written, but he woke up, and knew it was only a dream.

Yet, there was his mother standing by his bed. There was his father, standing right beside her. They were in pain, in agony, and they were hurt and confused. More ominously, they were angry. They wanted to lash out at him, but Marlowe suddenly realized something. They were afraid. They were afraid of him. They wanted to get away, as much as Marlowe wanted them to get away. He told them to leave, to go about their business, the business of the dead. That had been their life, after all. They had left that life now to him. They must go. They must not believe his dreams. It was only his guilt and anguish manifesting itself. He knew this from his psychology class. Morticians had to learn to deal with guilt and anguish, with despair and anger, with all of the emotions that beset the families of the bereaved, as well as the emotions they themselves had to learn to keep in check, as professionals.

Marlowe rose from his bed, conscious of the presence of the spirits of the dead, so many of them, mostly invisible. Now along with all this, he heard the voices, voices that he could not make out, unintelligible groans and whispers. His head was hurting again, and he was dizzy and nauseous. He could not stand it. It made him want to scream. He rose, but a little too quickly and almost fell into his dresser. He opened the drawer where he kept the drug, the drug he constantly had to find a new supplier for. He would give himself one more shot. He was not an addict. He only needed one shot, every few weeks or so. It was the only way to keep the voices from his head. They were the voices of the dead, and they had no business trying to dig their way inside his brain.

The shot coursed through his veins and he suddenly felt better, and he looked around, soon they all were gone, the voices were gone. His mother and father were gone too, but something else had taken their place, something worse. The strange figure in the dark gray burlap robe, with the hood, and the red eyes that pierced into him, now loomed over him. He never spoke to anyone, at least not in the way that passed for conversation. What times he spoke were all in monosyllables.

He spoke to Marlowe often, however. That is because Marlowe was special to him. Marlowe was important to him. He was, in a very real sense, the only father Marlowe had ever had. Still, Marlowe feared him greatly. He knew nothing about him. Marlowe put on his music. He looked for a cd to put in the player. It blocked out the voices sometimes, it helped him to think, and Marlowe needed to be able to think, especially now that the drug was coursing through his veins. It did not actually matter so much what it was. Anything was better than the silence. He had a lot he had to think about. Something bad had happened. What had it been? He forgot, strangely. The music blared through the speakers, and suddenly he remembered. It was something bad, very bad.

The man in the robe was about to show him his face again. No, he thought, for Gods’ sake, anything but that. He couldn’t stand the sight of it. He looked in his drawer, and that is when he found the picture. It was an old, old family photograph, of the first of the Krovelescu family to come over from Romania. Their names were Sergei and Irenea. They stood there, with the old gypsy woman. No one had ever known her name, only that she had been Irenea’s mother.

“They are all dead now.” Marlowe told the hooded figure. “They have been dead for years now. The old woman too”

“Yes, Marlowe.” the figure said. “They are all dead now.”

They had come over in the 1880’s. The old woman had been in her late forties, even then. Marlowe remembered now, her name was Magda. She had finally died in 1938. She was old, so very old. Before either of her parents were ever born. They were all dead by then. Strangely, though, there was no grave for the old gypsy. She had not been entombed within the family mausoleum that jutted out from the basement. Where then had they buried her?

Marlowe’s grandfather had remembered her, but vaguely, as an old woman. She wanted to be buried in the earth, not entombed, he had said, but he never knew where her grave was. He had forgotten, in fact had never known. It had been a secret. Now, his grandfather too was dead too. He saw him often. He saw him on this night, in fact. He still did not remember. They had kept it from him, even though she had been his own great grandmother.

However, the hooded figure reminded him of everything, how he had gone digging around in the attic, and found the old papers, the old will that she had made out. It was in Romanian, though badly written. She had been semi-literate, like most of the Rom, those who were literate at all. They had always been an oppressed minority. That was one reason the family moved to America. King Carol had ascended the throne, and Romania became an independent nation. They had not wanted to wait to see if things would improve. They knew things would probably not improve, and might well get even worse, so they left.

It had taken some time before Marlowe had found someone to translate the badly mangled script. When he finally did so, it was even more mysterious. It said simply

Irenea, the trunk must never be opened. Bury it with me. Put it behind you forever. Magda

Marlowe had no idea what she could have meant by an old trunk. His grandfather had not either. Probably they were old gypsy items, things that had sentimental value to her alone. Perhaps there was some stolen jewelry, perhaps stolen. Of course, Marlowe realized if this was the case, it might be valuable indeed, if for no other reason than its age. With passage of time, he forgot about it. Other things demanded his attention. He had his work, his studies, his plans for the future. He still thought of the of the old woman the last time they were on vacation in the Blue Ridge Mountains, though for no apparent reason. He avoided bringing the subject up. His father wanted no mention of Romania. He was like his grandfather in every way. We were Americans now, they said. Nothing good could ever come out of Romania. It was best forgotten.

A knock at the door interrupted his reveries. He slowly rose and opened it. It was Brad, who looked at him warily.

“I see you have returned”, he said suspiciously.

“Marlowe, there are some people that want to talk to you. The cops. You’d better turn this shit down.”

Marlowe did as he suggested, though he wondered at the same time why it mattered. He seriously doubted the police were there due to a complaint about disturbing the peace. Just the same, he made his way downstairs, as Brad whispered to him the question “are you all right?”

Marlowe barely registered the question. He looked around for the man in the robe, but he was gone. The two plainclothes cops stood at the bottom of the stairs, and regarded him with looks of curiosity, and Marlowe detected more than a little concern in their expressions.

Of course, they would ask how he was, and he would naturally answer that he was still feeling bad, but he was sure he would be all right. Brad soon excused himself, and went out the door. He had a big surprise for Brad when he returned, and smiled as he shut the front door.

“Do you have any idea who might have wanted you and your family dead, Mr. Krovell?” the younger cop asked after the boring and pretentious round of small talk was out of the way. “You see, we think this suicide note was faked.”

“Yeah, I know exactly who did it”, Marlowe replied. “A guy named Joseph Karinski and his friends. They’re the ones who shit and pissed in the leftovers, I know that for a fact. The one who put the arsenic in the food was a girl named April Lamont. She goes by the nickname Spiral.”

“But the arsenic”-the older cop began, but Marlowe interrupted him long enough to say, “she come here right after Brad left that night, right after the food got here. Another one of her friends works at KFC. His name is Milo Richmond. He must have been there when Brad went to pick up the food.”

The cops were still obviously suspicious. Why had he not mentioned this before? Of course, Marlowe had spent the last few days recuperating. He had not really put it all together. It never occurred to him that Spiral was there for anything other than what she said. She had broken up with Joseph again and wanted to get back together with him. They talked for a while, in private, she ate a piece of chicken, he had introduced him to his family, and then she left. That was the last thing he remembered. Everything else was a blur.

“So why did these people have it in for you so bad?” the older cop, named Frank, asked him.

Marlowe then told him the story of the death of his old girlfriend Raven, of the trouble he had had with Joseph and the others at the club, The Crypt. The younger cop dropped his jaw in awe.

“So that was you who did that?” he asked in what Marlowe could not help but feel was a degree of admiration. Berry then explained that he had heard this story from another cop, but it had been days after the fact, and no one seemed willing to verify it. Soon, everybody mostly chalked it up to be just another urban legend, the kinds of rumors that get started about places like The Crypt, but no one really takes seriously.

“And then on top of that you had sex with his girlfriend, this Spiral Lamont?” Frank asked.

“I guess that’s why she poisoned us all”, Marlowe said. “I fucked her and dumped her, and besides, Joseph wanted her to prove her loyalty. I’m surprised he didn’t kill her anyway. My guess is she will probably disappear before long if she hasn’t already.”

Marlowe then told him the names of the other members of Joseph’s little social club of misfits. Bridgett “Larceny” Adams, who was well known as an S&M hooker. George “Rhino” Phelps was a fitness and weight trainer. Sierra Lawson was a sometime prostitute, part time student, and on-again heavy metal singer and artist. Milo was a drug dealer, the KFC job was a part of a probation stint for possession. He had recently heard they had a new hanger on who went by the name of Spanky, who was only about sixteen years old, but he did not know her real name. But it was Spiral who was the main person of interest.

Marlowe knew that she was a pharmaceutical student and a part time bartender at The Crypt. What he had not known, until Berry kindly informed him, was that she had a record for forgery. How she managed to stay in pharmaceutical school, he had no idea. Probably she had turned states evidence, but if so, there was no record of it. Still, Berry was familiar enough with her case that he recognized the name immediately.

They asked Marlowe to sign a form, and of course, he knew they were going to compare his signature with the suicide note, which had stated that, according to his mother, constant exposure to death had made life meaningless to her and to everyone. It was an obvious fake, but Marlowe was not worried. He had not murdered his parents, nor had he written the note. He had not been himself when those things had happened. Something had taken him over. He never knew what it was exactly, but he did know it was all for the best. He would know everything, soon enough. Perhaps tonight he would have the answers he needed. These cops would certainly never know the truth. The truth soon would be buried. Another truth, a greater truth, would soon be resurrected.

He knew the cops would never find Spiral Lamont, and so he no longer concerned himself with the matter. Still, he was dizzy, and realized that had the police not known he was supposed to be recuperating from an attack, they would doubtless have caught on that he was higher than hell on something. They seemed concerned for him as it was.

He called for his uncle Bradley, who came in response to his summons with a look of growing concern.

“Something bad has happened”, he said. “I need to show you something. Downstairs.”

Brad nodded and followed Marlowe at a distance. Marlowe switched on the light, and made his way down the old hundred years old wooden steps. By the time he had made it to the bottom of the floor, he turned to see Brad barely half way down, looking anxiously down at him.

“What do you make of that?” Marlowe asked him, and suddenly Brad saw past Marlowe, the body that lay on the examining table. The body of a young woman, her throat cut savagely. Brad however did not know who she was. Neither it seemed did Marlowe. Brad forgot his previous caution and rushed down the steps, past Marlowe, to where laid the woman, the piercings on her right cheek going up along the entirety of her head, by the ear.

“Someone left her here this morning”, Marlowe said. “I found her out in the back yard. She is dead. But she is so very cold.”

Brad looked at Marlowe and noted that he seemed to be dazed, almost incoherent.

“Of course she is cold-she’s dead”, Brad said.

“Yes, but it is as if she has been packed in the mountain snow for days”, Marlowe replied. “I don’t know what to make of it.”

“Someone’s had her in a freezer, for a day or two probably”, Brad said as he felt the body, its arms, and its abdomen. He was more concerned, though, with his nephews’ state of mind.

“Marlowe, are you all right?” he asked. “What are we going to do, are we going to report this?”

“No time for that”, he explained. “I have something to do that is very important. I have no time for any questions. I know now who this is. Someone left her here as a warning to me. But it is nothing that I can’t handle on my own. You deal with her.”

Marlowe then went to a closet and extracted a pick and a shovel. It was getting dark, and he had much work to do. He moved toward the stairs, and then stopped at the foot of them, turning once more toward his uncle.

“Do with her as you wish”, he said. “When I am finished with what I have to do, we will dispose of her.”

“But what of the others, that Sierra, and this Joseph, and the rest of them”, Brad inquired. Marlowe ignored the question, in fact barely heard it. He had no time for such inconsequential matters. That annoyance he could deal with at his leisure. The work he now had to undertake was of vastly greater importance, in fact, it was something he could not put off. It had already taken far too long.

He found the spot outside the back of the house for which he had searched. The spot corresponded to that part of the family mausoleum where he was now sure his great-great-great grandmother Irenea had been buried. Sure enough, just out from there was an old lilac bush. He remembered now. There had been a sinkhole there, many years ago, and they had filled the hole in and planted the bush. Who knew how far down the roots went. It would be a hindrance, but by the same token, it functioned better than any road map. Marlowe knew he had the exact right spot, it even corresponded perfectly to this own calculations.

He went back into the house, into the garage, and found the old chainsaw. It would make short work of the lilac bush that always seemed to be somewhat out of place there. It almost never bloomed, and when it did, the blooms quickly dissipated. Where it was, it served no artistic or geometric pattern in relation to the other trees and shrubs, and other plants and flowers that made any sense. It was intended to merely fill in a sinkhole, to prevent its recurrence. Not only was it out of place, out of alignment with everything in the back yard, if this spot was what Marlowe thought it was it was unnecessary.

It took just a little under an hour to remove the lilac bush, which was actually taller than was Marlowe himself. By the time he was finished, he knew the hardest work was yet to come. He began to dig. For this job, manual digging was by far the most advisable. He wanted no further noisy machinery to arouse neighborhood suspicions. Especially since the police were already obviously viewing him with more than a small share of that unwanted commodity.

Marlowe dug for a good two hours, so much so that he was exhausted, and at the same time, more intensely determined. It was getting old, and the ground was hard. Yet, in the long run, that might well be all for the best. After he had finally dug down a good ten feet, he began to despair. Perhaps the old sinkhole had been nothing more than that after all. If he had wasted his time, for no more than a final burial space for Spiral Lamont, he would feel more than just a little stupid.

He was now dirty and sweaty, and both hot and cold. The drug had started to wear off, and he started to feel sick again. He had not eaten since early this morning, and then nothing more than a slice of toast and some oatmeal. His ribs hurt from the digging. What with al the digging equipment that he had at his disposal, he started to wonder if he might look far more suspicious if any happened to see him. Thankfully, a tall picket fence, along with an abundance of trees and tall shrubs, shielded him from the neighbors view.

Soon, he found what he was looking for. A great metal clang heralded the imposition of his pick against a sturdy metallic object. He prodded softly with the pick until he made out the outline of the object. It was about a two foot wide by roughly four and a half foot long. He dug carefully along the outline, until he saw the top of the trunk. He was ecstatic, and run to the house to get a plank and some rope. Within five minutes he returned and eagerly, under a now dusky sky, began hoisting the object up. He tied the rope around it tightly, and then tied the other end to a pillar of the house. He then pulled with all his might, using the large board to provide a sturdy leverage. After what seemed an interminably long time, he finally managed to raise the trunk up.

He then looked down into the hole of the earth, and saw the bones. The bones of Magda the Gypsy, Marlowe realized, buried in her beloved earth years ago, as per her wishes. She had lain for years thus beside the trunk, the contents of which she wished to share with no one. Now, her treasure had been lost. Marlowe would make it up to her. Soon she would have company to share in her eternal repose.

The old trunk was iron, and rusted. It might well have eventually rusted more and developed holes here and there, from constant exposure to the rain soaked ground. The old lilac bush had offered it a degree of protection, while the drainage, which provided for all the other plants over the years, afforded it even more refuge. It might well have lasted another fifty years or so without becoming any more rusted than what it currently was. That might not have bode well for the contents of the box.

Marlowe now felt a degree of excitement he had never experienced, not even as a child. It was exhilarating. What could possibly be in this old chest, he wondered? He looked upon the ends of the trunk, and that was when he finally made out the writing, though it looked to have been scratched on the end with a blade. It was Rumanian. Would the old woman have done this, or would she have marked the trunk in her own native Romany language? Did the trunk perhaps actually precede her?

It certainly appeared to be very ancient, and when Marlowe cleaned off the end to the best of his ability, he could make out what seemed to be the Rumanian word RADU.

It was a common enough personal name, but with no surname. Could it be her husband? Of course, it would make sense that she would want to bring his remains with her when she left Romania, and came to the faraway and mysterious land of America, an unknown world on another continent, an ocean away, where she would have little to remind her of her homeland. Her daughter had married a man who was not of the Rom, but who had been so determined to leave the old world behind, he had his name changed, as Anglicized as it could have been while keeping at least a small form of it’s original structure.

It would explain why there would be no surname, as she would have had no need for it. She knew who he was.

Still, even this did not completely make sense. The old woman at her death had been in her early nineties, but when she first came to this country, she had been a mere forty-three years old at most. For fifty years, she had lived, and kept the contents of the trunk locked away within it. Perhaps she had never opened it the entire time she had possessed it. Nevertheless, if it had been her husband, why then had she not interred his remains in the same earth she was determined she herself would be buried in? Had she perhaps merely wanted the two of them buried together? Was she that attached to him that she wished to keep him with her the entirety of the remainder of her life? Gypsies had some strange customs, Marlowe was aware of this, but this went far beyond anything he had imagined.

More than likely it was not his remains, but merely some of his belongings. Perhaps they were some old mementoes, or possibly something no more extraordinary than some items of clothing, some books, and some gypsy trinkets. Possibly even some old lei, or possibly even some gold coins. Perhaps there were old photographs, perhaps even a family history. If so, that would certainly be interesting.

He went back to the garage and found a crowbar. Then, when he returned to the old trunk, he made yet another discovery. Not only had someone locked it with a chain and a padlock, as well as with its own internal locking mechanism-as he applied the edge of the crowbar around the edge of the top, he discovered that the inner edges of the top were sealed all around with some kind of a wax. Good, Marlowe thought, that would afford that much more protection to the contents. At the same time, the wax had long ago hardened to a consistency that it quickly gave way to a fine powder as Marlowe worked the crowbar around the edges.

The locks were a different matter. With little difficulty, Marlowe removed the chain. In fact, it snapped before he ever completed halfway the process of painstakingly sliding the chain down first one side of the trunk and the other. After it snapped, it came off easily. The internal lock of course would be a different matter. The key, which would have fit it, was probably long lost. Even if it were lying around somewhere and easily found, it would be unlikely to work.

Marlowe proceeded to drag the trunk with the old rope back to the house. With some difficulty, he managed to lift it up, step by painstaking step, to the back porch, where he propped open the storm door. He then opened the heavy old oak door and proceeded to drag the trunk inside, into first the kitchen, and then into the utility room.

By now, he had made yet another discovery. The sides of the trunk were now bulging. There was a hissing noise, that seemed to be emanating from some opening, perhaps from around the edges of the top lid, from which he had removed the hardened sealing wax. Marlowe feared that, whatever he had uncovered here, there was a danger now that it could well explode. Perhaps, he mused, it might have been some type of old chemical formula, some kind of old ancient gypsy potions. Marlowe’s imagination began to run wild with him. Then, suddenly, they appeared before him.

They always seemed to come when he was under a lot of stress, but now he could see the spirits of the dead all around him, countless numbers of them, and more he could not see. Yet, he knew they were there. Suddenly, he lost sight of where he was exactly. He was no longer in his family’s home utility room. He was in a shroud-filled area, with no beginning or end, no up or down. It was going dark, save for the hooded, robed man with the burning eyes. He could suddenly hear the loud, dark, discordant noise of a band playing, but he did not know whom they were. He had never heard them before, but their tones pierced through him, made his head pound. Then he heard a voice.

“Open the trunk now!” it commanded him, and the noise of the strange music suddenly ceased. The dead were no longer around him. He realized then he had a spike in one hand, a mallet in another. He bent down, and with one savage blow after another, he struck into the sides of the trunk. The hissing noises of the escaping gasses grew louder, and suddenly Marlowe realized he could smell something. It was something stagnant. Something that was musty, moldy, and rotten. He struck again, and finally the top popped open and a great whoosh of escaping gasses all but knocked him over. He felt as though a strong hand gripped him by the chest, and for a second he lost his breath, completely lost his ability to breathe. Finally, after some time, he gasped.

He looked inside, and saw the grinning skull, surrounded by a mass of bones, and dust, and partially mummified remains. The stench was horrible, and then suddenly, he no longer noticed it. He looked down and noticed a small book, clutched with a skeletal hand upon what remained of the figures mummified chest. Marlowe tried to open the book, but its pages were stuck together. When he tried to pry them apart, however gently, they merely collapsed into dust. There was nothing readable anywhere. Even the title on the old leather bound cover had long since faded, it’s colors running together into a semblance of what appeared to be nothing more than an incoherent blob, an accidental ink stain.

Marlowe looked upon the figure of the man. Whatever this book had been had apparently been all he had taken with him into the grave. Now whatever worth it might have had was useless to him. Suddenly, Marlowe felt light headed and high, in a different way from that which the drugs usually made him feel. Before, they merely kept him calm, and relaxed. Now, for the first time in a long time, he actually felt high in a giddy, happy kind of way. He began laughing, cackling.

The ghosts were gone. The dead no longer were around him. Even the robed, hooded figure with the burning eyes was nowhere. Marlowe took a deep breathe, and turned in a complete circle as he stepped out into the kitchen. He kept turning and turning, until he became dizzy. He laughed loudly, and cackled. He started to giggle as he made his way into the living room. Finally free of his fears, his guilt, and his anxiety. They were memories now, memories that he had learned from, but now he had no need of them. He was truly free. He moved with effortless grace into the living room, and strolled up to a mirror. He looked upon himself. He looked different now from what he had remembered. The long, dark curls fell down to his shoulders, and the bright green eyes danced madly about, until they met his gaze.

“What a handsome devil you are”, he said and he suddenly cackled, repressing his full laughter for just a second, but then he just had to burst out loud laughing.

After all this time, he was finally free.








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