World of DarknessThe Dark of the YearWorld of Darkness

by
Kevin Andrew Murphy

 Some days you wanna rip your fuckin' eyes out.

 I hate seein' things. It sucks. Sucks real hard. I'm here, trying to hang out, have a nice afternoon, pass the time of day, all that shit, and there's three ghosts in the place, a giant spider in the rafters, Neville's around, and he ain't got a fuckin' soul (leastways not one he keeps in his body), and here comes Penny, who's usually bright and happy and cheerful and one of the few people who actually makes me glad I'm still alive (if you call this livin'), and she's got this black cat perched on her shoulder, lookin' 'round as if it owned the place, an' for all I know it does, 'cause whatever it is, it ain't a cat.

 An' there she is, smiling for all the world like it's Show-and-Tell Day and she's brought her new pet in for the class to see, an' she comes right up to me, an' I don't think she knows what the fuck she's got on her shoulder.

 I look at it, and it looks back at me, and its eyes are as bright as a couple of emeralds, and just about as old. I lick my lips. "That ain't a fuckin' cat."

 The cat that ain't a cat looks at me and cocks its head like a real cat would, then turns to Penny and says, "Is he usually this rude?"

 Penny rolls her eyes and takes the ain't-a-fuckin'-cat down off her shoulders and cuddles it like a baby an' says, "Worse." She looks up at me and makes a face. "Really, Peter, do you have to be such an Eeyore? What's your problem?"

 Eeyore. Yeah, right. She's calling me a fucking donkey, while she's there cuddling a bunch of black fur that's older than the pyramids. But all I say is, "You'd have a problem too if someone stuck a rusty thumbtack in your ass."

 I stomp off while Neville's saying something calm and logical to Penny like you'd expect from someone who ain't got a fuckin' soul, an' then I suddenly have to deal with a soul that ain't got a fuckin' body, not that Thaddeus ever shows much more feeling than Neville.

 He tilts his hand, hardly a motion, an' catches my arm with the hook of his cane. "Hold a moment, Peter," he says--as if I could do anything else, with a ghost ivory dragon's head snagged on my elbow, ready to poke its fangs into my soul if I so much as move an inch.

 Thaddeus reels me in like a fish, then unhooks his cane and takes off his spectacles on their little ribbon an' starts polishin' them like he always does when he's about to say somethin' he thinks is real wise and pithy an' somethin' he thinks I haven't heard a dozen times over, even if I haven't been around since before Queen Victoria kicked off like he has. "I believe you owe the young lady an apology."

 "What the fuck are you talking about, you ghost bastard?"

 Thaddeus inspects his spectacles for dirt. "In my day," he says, like he usually starts his lectures, "a young man would never take his leave of a lady without at least begging her pardon and excusing himself. To say nothing of refraining from vulgar comments regarding thumbtacks and one's nether regions."

 "She called me a jackass."

 "No, she made a literary allusion which implied that you were being a depressing little donkey. Hardly the same thing." He sticks his ghost spectacles back on his ghost nose and smiles. "Why were you so rude anyway?"

 I stand my ground. "That ain't a fuckin' cat."

 "Not an ordinary one, at least." Thaddeus inclines his head and sneaks a glance. "I believe Penny has gained the services of a witch's familiar, and from that we may surmise that Penny is quite a bewitching young woman--a fact with which I know you are already well acquainted."

 I don't need some fuckin' Victorian-Age Robber Baron dirty-old-ghost lawyer telling me when I've got a hard-on. I walk the fuck out of the Waydown an' let him trail after me, swaggering his cane, heel-and-toe, heel-and-toe, ever-so-fuckin'-proper, Mr. High-and-Mighty, better-educated-than-you'll-ever-be ghost.

 And you wonder why I wanna rip my eyes out sometimes?

 There are dead leaves everywhere, skeleton leaves, and cobwebs and broken stone, and the light's dyin' early, four days after Thanksgiving, and what the fuck is there to be thankful for? An alcoholic father? A dying grandfather? A bunch of old aunts who think they know everything, when all they know is recipes and gossip and old lady shit like that, and not the weird-assed evil shit that goes down in the world every day, like ghosts and spiders and Neville not having a fuckin' soul and Penny getting a witch's cat to play baby with?

 Fuck.

 I sit down hard, between the headless deer and the headless lamb that sit at the feet of the Marie Antoinette St. Francis statue that stands outside the old church, and it's cold and hard and just the way I wish I felt inside, but I don't and I can't and I can't even talk about the things I see 'cept around people like Neville an' Penny an' her cat, 'cause then they think you're crazy an' they come for you an' take you to the nut house. An' if you think the world outside is cold and evil, you ain't seen what it's like inside one of those places.

 They've got demons there, and imps, and little things that crawl on your shoulder and whisper bad things in your ear. Kill! Kill! Fuck your mother! All that shit. And then there's the men in the white coats and the men in the black coats, and the ones that don't have demons in them don't have any souls either, and they look at you with their empty eyes and show you their little cards and ask you what does this look like to you, and what does that look like to you, and what do you think when they say that and when they say this, and fuck, they ain't got any souls, an' not like Neville either, 'cause they seem glad they lost theirs, which ain't like Neville, 'cause he just acts like, whether or not he's got a soul and what he's done with it, is his business, not yours, and he ain't about to go askin' for anyone else's or tellin' you what you should do with yours.

 Which ain't a thing like the nut house, 'cause when you go in there, they want you to show them your soul so they can suck it out, or stick one of their little imps in it, or do some other fuckin' evil shit. But don't you let them. Tell 'em what they want to hear. Tell 'em you don't see anythin'. Not the demons, not the ghosts, not the little imps crawlin' into people's ears. None of that shit. Just tell 'em you dropped some bad acid, but you're fine now, and you won't ever do it again and they'll let you go, 'cause then you're as boring as the rest of the world and your soul won't be very tasty.

 It's happened to me before, and that's the way I got out with my soul intact, and my skin too. If, like I said, you can call this living.

 Thaddeus is there, smiling, and one thing being in the nut house taught me is you don't talk to ghosts, leastways not if you don't want to go back in. But Thad isn't like most ghosts. If he wants an answer, it's usually just a yes or a no, not something more, and like a lot of living people, he likes the sound of his own voice, 'least when there are people to hear it.

 "Really, Peter," he says, "are my lessons on propriety and decorum for naught? I've told you time and again, speak politely, nod, answer when you are spoken to and not before, always be gracious, especially in the presence of a lady, and whatever you do, do not voice facts about others that they do not wish to be reminded of or made public. One's illusions about oneself are sacrosanct, and people resent having them shattered. And the only thing they resent more is being told unpleasant truths of which they are already painfully aware."

 "You're dead. Fuck you. Go away."

 Thaddeus clucks his tongue, but I'm the only one who can hear it, even if I weren't the only one outside. "Really, Peter. What have I just been telling you?"

 Like I said, Thad likes the sound of his own voice, and most of his questions don't need any answers. He's already got them all himself.

 There's weird shit in the air. You can smell it going down. Omens. Dead leaves and cobwebs. All that shit. Like having a finger on a spiderweb. You can feel the spider move her feet if you're sensitive enough, and I am.

 Always have been, even before Thad and the rest of the rotten ghost bastards nearly got me killed. That just made me more sensitive. Like bee stings. A little poison, a little death, makes you know it when it comes around again. You can feel the buzz. Wings caught in webs. One prick and it's death, or sensitivity and pain.

 Bet you can guess which I got.

 And it's twilight and a car pulls up in front of the Waydown, black as pitch and twice as shiny, with silver mirrored windows that you can't get legally, and the door opens up and a man gets out an' comes 'round the back, his coat as black as the car but dead as night where the doors are shiny, and it's one of the bastards without any souls, I know it, even though I can't look in his eyes to tell for sure 'cause he's got mirrorshades on, shiny like the windows, reflecting everything but the soul he ain't got.

 But he ain't payin' any attention to me. He goes to the rear door and opens it, holdin' it open for this huge Japanese guy, like a giant sumo wrestler with a crewcut, if sumo wrestlers wore twelve-hundred-dollar grey pinstripe suits instead of giant white diapers and sweat. An' the sumo guy gestures to him like he was just some normal chauffeur, 'cept I can tell the sumo guy knows he ain't (Don't ask how I know. I just know these things, okay?), and he says, "Bring the car back around midnight."

 The man in black just nods and goes and gets back in the car and it drives off, as silent as it appeared, and here it is, still twilight, and the sumo guy is walkin' over to me and I can feel the buzz in the air like a bee caught in a web.

 "Now this," Thaddeus says, "is a gentleman. Observe him, Peter, and you may learn something."

 Observe him. Yeah, right.

 The sumo guy hasn't noticed Thad, but Thad's smiling like he knows when he sees a kindred spirit, 'cause the big Japanese guy is smilin' the exact same, ever-so-proper diplomat's smile, and I know if he had a cane or a cigarette he'd be playin' with it or lightin' up to give him another minute to stand there and pose and look polite, except he ain't the type who smokes, and he'd break a cane if he used one, so he just folds his hands and nods and makes this funny little half-bow to show that he's noticed me and considers himself above me, but he's still being polite 'cause he wants to ask me a question and he doesn't usually come to neighborhoods like this one and wants to make sure that I know that he doesn't.

 So what's to observe? I got his number, it's the same one Thaddeus uses, and the only thing I don't know is why a flash dude like him is in a place like this an' what he wants and why he's so important that he's making my sixth sense jangle like a keyring in the hand of an epileptic.

 "Excuse me," he says, "is this the place known as the Waydown?"

 Talks just like Thaddeus. "This is the place known as the Old St. Francis." I jerk my thumb back at the headless statue. "This is St. Francis. He's seen better days." I wait a beat. "So's the church."

 Mr. Sumo looks around, taking in the leaves and the cobwebs and the burnt-out hulk of the church we Hollowers use as a crash pad sometimes and he nods and smiles. "I-- I was given to understand it was a nightclub."

 "You were given to understand wrong." I lean back against the deer and kick my boots up over the lamb's back. "Does it look like a nightclub?"

 Mr. Sumo has to admit that it does not, and the Waydown hasn't been held at the St. Francis since Halloween, or All Hollow's Eve like Penny and Blackrose like to call it when they get silly and start makin' up stupid Goth names for everything. Samhain isn't anything to joke about, 'specially not this past one.

 Even if the Waydown were open more often, though, it wouldn't be open tonight. Mondays are for Death Guild over at the Trocadero, and if the Waydown were going down tonight, it would be going down there.

 Mr. Sumo smiles again and says, "Actually, I am not really looking for a nightclub," but Thaddeus smiles and holds his finger to his lips so I don't say "No shit" like I want to. But the lawyer ghost's got good instincts, 'cause one of the things he's taught me is that if you hold your trap shut, people tend to blab on and tell you things they usually wouldn't.

 The Japanese guy bobs his head again, realizing he's not going to get a response, and says, "Dr. Ken Himiitsu, U.C. Medical Center" and holds out a hand that looks like a slab of bacon, 'cept that slabs of bacon don't usually have diamond pinky rings.

 "It is customary," Thaddeus says drily, "to shake a hand that is offered in greeting, and to give one's own name in exchange." I ignore him too, and he says, "If, on the other hand, one intends to give insult by not accepting such a gesture--as I assume you wish to refrain from giving him your name--then it is particularly effective to make some meaningless pleasantry and observation so as to defuse the situation."

 Like I said, the lawyer's got good instincts. "Nice pinky ring," I say, and Dr. Sumo looks flustered and plays with it and gives a "Yes, I'm flustered, and I hate you 'cause you've snubbed me, but I can't actually hit you 'cause you've complimented me on my pinky ring which I actually am fond of" look, then squares his shoulders, which are about as wide as he's tall, and says, "We appear to have gotten off to a bad start here. I am one of the Progenitors. You have heard of our organization?"

 "No." I shrug. "Was I supposed to?"

 Dr. Ken Himiitsu, Mr. Sumo Progenitor, gives a "Well of course you weren't supposed to hear about our secret organization, but . . ." look, and plays with his pinky ring some more, then says, "You have no idea who the Progenitors are?"

 I wobble my boots back and forth, kicking back. "Some wacky fringe group of Operation Rescue?"

 "No." He puts his hands down and squares his shoulders. "Let us not play games. The Progenitors are a Convention of the Technocracy, and you, I am certain, are an awakened mage. You are one of the ones who call themselves the Hollow Heads?"

 Thaddeus laughs, and I chuckle a little bit inside at the same time as I feel the anger start to build up behind my eyes. Someone had fed this bastard a line of bull, 'cause we Hollow Ones don't take kindly to the fancy-pants bastards in the Technocracy. Hollow Heads. Heh, that's a good one, and it's all the information the Technos deserve. But it's more than one of us Hollowers would say unless one of the Technos stuck a gun in his face, and a pretty big gun too.

 But I take Thad's "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" shtick and wait and see what Dr. Progenitor is going to say next.

 "I know you might have reason to distrust me, but please, be assured that I have everyone's best interests at heart--"

 "Glad to hear it."

 "--but--" He pauses, flustered, then starts over. "Young man. I truly do not wish to trouble you or any of your fellow Hollow Heads, but I was wondering if perhaps you had seen a spider lately."

 I point to one of the cracks in St. Francis's robe. "Yeah, right there. 'spiders all over the place."

 Dr. Himiitsu smiles. "I meant a larger spider. Much larger."

 "You been droppin' acid, mister?"

 "No." He smiles graciously, though I'm pushing him to the breaking point. "I was referring to a pattern spider. A very large pattern spider. Her name is Weaver, and I had a hand in her creation."

 I kick my feet off the headless lamb and come up quick, but Thaddeus has his cane barring my way. "Steady, Peter. Steady."

 The anger's buildin' up behind my eyes, and the pain, and some of it's startin' to bleed through, and fuck, it hurts. Hurts like it always does, and everythin's turnin' red. "You pig," I say. "You're the pig who turned Norna into that thing."

 "Ah, so she is here!" Dr. Himiitsu beams, and fuck, the only thing that's keepin' me from jumpin' him is Thad's cane in my throat and the fact that the pig weighs about three times as much as me and not all of it's fat. Well marbled bacon.

 And fast, greasy bacon too, 'cause the next thing I know, Dr. Pig's hand is pushin' me flat against St. Francis. "Please, young man," he says. "I have no wish to harm you, as I had no wish to harm Norna. It was simply necessary for the safety of the City that she become a pattern spider and reweave the broken threads of the tapestry. Regrettable, but necessary. I have already died once in this business, and while unpleasant, it was hardly permanent, so please, do not take any rash ideas into your head as to taking my life, as I must assure you, that will not only be difficult, but impermanent. Which would not be the case if I were forced to take yours, for you do not have the luxury of having clones on file, as do I." He smiles. "I am a doctor, and I prefer to preserve life when possible. I only wish to collect Weaver and leave."

 "You're a fucking pig, that's what you are," I say, and fuck, the pain's burnin' behind my eyes, and it hurts. Hurts like a motherfucker, an' everywhere I look everythin's gone red as blood. "I don't care how many vats you crawl out of, or how many times you come back, you're a pig and you always will be. A filthy pig! You know what? Just before you came back last time someone tossed a bag of pork rinds in the tank, 'cause they couldn't tell the difference. Pig skin on the inside, pig skin on the outside. You're nothing but a pig, through and through, and no matter how many times you come back, that's all you'll ever be. Pig! You're nothin' but a fuckin' pig!"

 There's this story I read when I was a kid, 'bout a girl who had a magic finger, an' when she got mad, it zapped out and turned her teacher into a cat, and some kids into ducks, and it happened whether she wanted it to or not. Just when she got mad.

 My magic ain't in my fingers, but you don't want to get me mad either. An' if you do, don't look me in the eye. There's a lot said 'bout the evil eye, but the main thing is that you don't want it, and don't want to get whammied by it.

 Dr. Pig stares at me, gettin' even redder in the face, or really pinker, and his eyes get all squinty and his nose gets more piggy and his canines start stickin' out of his lower lip. But he ain't noticin' until his pinky ring starts cuttin' into his ham hand and he pulls it back and stares at the blood pourin' down it as it starts turnin' into a pig's trotter with a diamond ring stuck in the side.

 I jump up on the base of the statue and point my own magic finger at him and shout, "Pig! You're nothin' but a fuckin' pig, and that's all you'll ever be!" and Dr. Himiitsu squeals and drops to all fours and his suit pops open as he gets even bigger and fatter an' then there's this giant fuckin' razorback hog starin' right up at me and St. Francis.

 It screams an' goes after me, but then it realizes that pigs can't climb fuckin' statues and it glares at me with its evil little eyes and turns and starts rootin' through its clothes, but not like a pig would, but like it's lookin' for somethin', an' then it rips open a pocket an' out pops a prescription bottle that goes skitterin' across the cobblestones in front of the church. An' Dr. Pig goes trottin' happily after it, like he knows what's in it, but then Thaddeus says, "Allow me, Peter," an' jogs over to where the pig's about to get the prescription bottle an' whacks it with his cane--the bottle, not the pig--an' the bottle goes skitterin' out into the middle of the street, an' the pig looks at it, then looks at me an' does a double-take, 'cause Thad's a ghost an' it can't see him, then it goes after the bottle as Thad's skippin' along, laughin', gettin' ready to use his cane as a nine-iron again.

 "'Thou elvish-marked, abortive rooting hog,'" Thaddeus says an' gives the bottle another whack just as Dr. Pig is about to get to it, an' fuck, I don't know what he's talkin' about, but it's a cool-sounding curse, then Thad waits until the pig is just about to get to the bottle one more time an' he whacks it right down the storm drain like you'd shoot the ball into the little castle at the miniature golf course.

 An' the pig screams an' Thad just takes out his pocket watch an' smiles an' looks at it an' says, "Just on time," an' steps back, an' fuck, I can feel the web jangling like the spider's dancing a rumba on it, an' the next second the pig screams an' the brakes scream an' a San Francisco Examiner truck plows right into the razorback an' skids out an' smashes it into a fire hydrant an' blood an' water fountain everywhere.

 Thaddeus stands there and smiles an' says, "Even timely news is seldom pleasant," an' I see Dr. Himiitsu's soul come out of the pig's body an' fuck, it's one of those moments when I ain't the one pullin' my strings, 'cause the next thing I know I'm pointin' and sayin', "You are a pig, you were a pig, and you always will be a pig!" an' the web snaps and thunder claps and Thaddeus stamps his cane three times on the ground and says, "It has been witnessed!" an' fuck, Dr. Himiitsu's soul winks out of there, off to the vat in his lab where he'll become a pig all over again. I just know it, okay?

 Then it's all normal again, or at least as normal as it can be, with a fire hydrant gushin' water and pig's blood all over a newspaper truck, and the driver comin' out and wonderin' what the fuck's happened, an' whether he should call the police or animal control, an' one of the driver's eyes is blood red an' fuck if I know what that's supposed to mean, an' Thaddeus is there grinnin' like he planned the whole thing, or at least knew it was goin' to come down, an' I think he did, and then there's Neville an' Blackrose an' Penny an' her cat comin' out of the church to see what all the commotion is about, an' fuck if I know how I'm going to tell them.

 "Rather vulgar but effective nonetheless," Neville says, cold as ice, as if a man hadn't just been turned into a pig and butchered all in a minute's time. "I'm surprised you're not reeling from the paradox, Peter."

 "Ain't my problem, ain't my fault, ain't my paradox," says I. "Bastard turned Norna into spider, an' if I guilt-tripped him into turnin' himself into a pig, well, that's his problem an' his paradox, not mine. Karmic scales balancin', Threefold Law, all the rest of that shit."

 Blackrose's lightin' up one of those clove cigarettes that I know's goin' to be the death of her, an' she takes a drag and looks at the pig an' the fountain an' the newspaper truck an' says, "I thought it was rather like the Witch Queen's spell in Willow. Or what Evil did to the dwarf in Time Bandits."

 Penny rolls her eyes, sayin', "Remember the Duchess's baby? Lewis Carroll beat them both to it," an' she pets her cat an' it purrs like a normal cat would, but under the purrin' I hear it say, "A very ancient curse. Nicely done, young master," an' fuck, I can't take it anymore.

 I turn to Neville. "A guy without a soul's goin' to be back here 'round midnight. I'd get myself lost if I were you." An' I turn aroun' an' walk back 'round the church to where I parked my car, 'cause I don't want to deal with the guy in the black trenchcoat when he comes back to pick up Dr. Himiitsu an' all he finds is a ripped suit an' a butchered hog.

 An' Thaddeus is taggin' along like he's been doin' for the past month, but he's not sayin' anythin', an' neither am I, 'cause if you stopped to tell off every ghost you saw, you'd never get anywhere. Leastways I wouldn't.

 An' the trees aroun' the back of the church are hung with spiderwebs an' skeleton leaves an' dewdrops the size of pearls like in one of those old fairytale-book pictures like Penny likes, an' fuck, it's all gettin' weird again, 'cause instead of the back of the church an' the street where I parked my car, there's a forest grove with trees with cobwebs and diamonds and skeleton leaves, an' I step into the grove an' a star comes down from the constellations overhead, 'cept it ain't a star, it's a giant silver spider, an' the constellations have lines in them like they do in picture books, an' the spider's turnin', turnin', faster and faster like one of those crystal window danglies they sell down on Haight, goin' into a sparklin' silver blur.

 Then it slows down, an' instead of spiderlegs, I see silver cords, woven together into one of those hammock chairs like they sell at Ren Faire, an' in the chair is Norna, like I remember her, 'cept that she's dressed in cobweb lace that's made out of real cobwebs, silver an' grey, an' she's got a spiderweb tattooed across her cheek, an' silver chains going from the rings in her eyebrows to the cords in the chair, an' her eyes are blue as sapphires with pupils in the shape of black widows.

 "Nice contacts," I say, but fuck, they ain't contacts, they're the way she really is, though it looks fuck-all better than the giant spider I've seen runnin' around the vault of the Waydown. "Long time no see, Norna."

 "Norna," she says. "A Norn. Weaver. Fatespinner. All are me. I am Three."

 "You're fucked in the head, that's what you are," I say, an' Norna laughs, a tinklin' sound like bells and crystals, but whatever it is, it ain't human, an' she says, "Urth. Clotho. Aglaia. Call me what you will. This is my Destiny and Dr. Himiitsu was but its agent." She pauses an' laughs again an' I see a glimmer of the old Norna. "Dr. Himiitsu has met his Destiny, and you were but my agent. Thank you, Peter."

 Then she kicks back in the chair and it starts spinnin' again, an' she chants more names: "Skuld. Atropos. Thalia. Grandmother Spider, there is need!" an' she spins in a blur of silver and crystal, but instead of slowin' down to a stop like before there's this sudden Snap! an' the hammock drops to the ground an' there's this old bag lady gypsy-witch fortuneteller with a pair of big iron scissors over her head like she was a flamenco dancer an' they was castanets or somethin' an' the thread Norna was hangin' from is snapped in two an' Norna's gone.

 "Shuttle and Loom. Destiny. Doom. Free Will or Fate? Which will it be, young man?" an' fuck, I know this old biddy, she told my fortune just before the ghosts nearly killed me the last time, an' she smiles an' says, "Ah yes, you will remember Madame Cleo Verthank, won't you, young Peter? Here, see, I will remember you too," an' she reaches into her sleeve an' pulls out a snag about as thin as a piece of spiderweb an' as long as your arm an' she says, "Ah yes, here will be your thread. Try to cut it, we do, but see, it will be stubborn," an' she takes the big iron shears an' goes Snap! right on the thread. Snap! Snap! But it ain't broken, an' she shakes her head an' says, "Stubborn, stubborn, stubborn. There will be Destiny spun into it. Frayed it, we have, but it won't be broken. Not till we get sharper shears."

 She looks up and smiles an' her teeth are all snaggled an' rotten. "But we will have sharper shears now. See, young Peter?" an' she holds up her scissors an' they're glistenin' silver like they came brand-spankin' new from Ginsu, an' fuck, I know they can cut me faster than they can cut a tomato, an' she holds the scissors close to the thread and moves them gently back and forth--snip! snip!--but she ain't cut my thread yet, an' she says, "It is such a strong thread, though. It will be a pity to cut it short, even if Destiny will be all that holds it together. But perhaps it will find a useful place in the tapestry and we will not have to cut it just yet. Yes?"

 She smiles like a housewife on TV an' looks at her new shears an' says, "Such pretty scissors. We will enjoy them very much," an' then she tosses them in the air, open, an' they get bigger an' bigger and they come down towards me an' Thad says, "Do not move, Peter," an' the next thing I know the blades are bigger than Christmas and twice as bright an' they come down on either side of me an' I'm there right between the blades.

 Then everythin' shimmers an' I'm there on the streetcorner, with rain on the street on either side of me, shinin' in the moonlight like the old witch's scissors.

 "What the fuck was that?"

 "That was an omen," Thaddeus says, an' stands there, polishin' his glasses. "The Fates have informed you that you will shortly come to a crossroads in you life, and how you decide in that matter will determine whether you live or die."

 Fuck, I already figured that out myself. Like I said, Thad likes statin' the obvious, an' there's only one thing I haven't figured out yet: "What's it to you?"

 "To me?" Thaddeus is taken aback, then takes another second to polish his glasses and put them back and flick the ghost dust from his suit. "I was wondering when you'd get around to asking. I am your spirit guide, young necromancer, duly bonded and deputized by the Fates."

 "I didn't ask for a fuckin' spirit guide."

 "You get one nonetheless." Thaddeus stands there, grey-gloved hands on top of his dragon's head cane, top hat tilted to one side. "I meddled in your Destiny one too many times, I'm afraid, and one does not toy with Fortune's Favorites unless one is willing to pay Her price. Thankfully for me, the Fates recognized my talents, and the position is one to which I am well suited."

 Thaddeus is a lying bastard when it suits him, but what he's sayin' right now has the ring of truth, and I don't like it. Don't like it one bit. "So you get to play Jiminy Cricket for me?"

 He adjusts his gloves. "Hardly, Peter. You already have sufficient conscience, and certainly more than I possess." He taps his hat with his cane and smiles. "I believe my job in death is rather the same as it was in life: counselor, advisor, occasional agent and go-between. You need tutoring in diplomacy and tact, wisdom and manners, things that I can provide, if you are ever to become a creditable mage."

 "I ain't a mage; I'm just a kid who nearly got killed and has had weird shit happen to him ever since."

 Thad gestures with his cane. "If that isn't an admirable definition of a journeyman spiritualist, I don't know what is. You talk to wraiths, you see omens in the everyday, and you associate with two young witches--one of whom has a very potent familiar, I might add--as well as a wizard who has succeeded in the ancient magic of removing his soul from his body and placing it elsewhere for safekeeping. And you just cursed an enemy sorcerer such that he turned into a pig. Tell me, if presented with such a case, wouldn't you define the person in question as a magician?"

 "Fuckin' lawyer," I say, but he's got a point, an' I shiver as I feel the spiderwebs around me. "What do the Fates want me to do?"

 "That, unfortunately, I cannot say," Thad says, an' I look at him an' he quickly puts up his hands, fingers spread, cane held in one thumb. "Not, mind you, because I cannot, but because I honestly don't know. The Fates, if I may be so bold, are rather like politicians: They are deliberately vague, such that they cannot be held to any one thing in particular. What is before you is a matter of free will, and they will decide whether or not to cut your thread based upon your decision. To tell you exactly what the crossroad is, however, would be to affect that decision, and thereby impinge on free will. Q.E.D. I'm am therefore as much in the dark as you."

 Shit. Fuckin' lawyers everywhere. "Alright then, Thad. You're my spiritual advisor. Advise me."

 He doesn't look as flustered as I'd hoped, but then he's a fuckin' lawyer an' he's used to being put on the spot. He reaches into the pocket of his waistcoat an' checks his watch. "I would advise, Peter, that we leave this place posthaste. Time flows rather quickly around Madame Cleo, as would befit the Muse of History, and it is currently a quarter to midnight. And as I would suspect the gentleman in black is highly punctual, that gives us only fifteen minutes to get ourselves away from this place."

 Good advice, I'll admit, an' I get in my car an' start 'er up an' pause just a moment to let Thad in, 'cause ghosts can't open doors unless they get real pissed, an' even if they do, they tend to slam 'em somethin' fierce. So we just get the hell away from the Waydown and go off to Death Guild.

 Death Guild, like I said, is on Mondays, at the Trocadero on Fourth, an' it's a lot like the other Goth clubs, but more low-key than Usher an' less kindergoth than Temple. I find parkin' on the street, an' that tells you how dead it is, an' Thad an' I make our way down as he keeps up this lecture on respectability and propriety and decorum and how to be a stuffy, pompous wizard and fuck-all who knows what else, an' then I see her an' whoa-mama an' holy shit.

 There's a lot of weird stuff goin' down tonight, that's all I can say, 'cause there, hangin' out in front of the club like she's waitin' for me, is the most righteous Goth chick you ever seen, with black leather an' black lace an' thigh-high bitch-boots with buckles all over the place an' jet black hair down to her waist, and it ain't none of it dyed 'cept the lace an' leather.

 That's what you see at first glance. But when you blink you see the same outfit--bitch-boots, leather, lace, ankh, all the rest of that shit--but the woman in it is so old she makes Madame Cleo look like a prom queen, and the fortuneteller witch is so bagged-out she makes a sack of rotten potatoes look good. The woman here is shriveled up in her skin, which'd be dried up like a mummy's if it weren't so wrinkled, and her head's bald 'cept for some long wisps of white hair, so fine they look like spiderwebs, an' the only thing that looks young about her at all is her left eye, which is bright as an agate an' lookin' at everythin', an I mean everythin', but I don't mean it's precisely young either, just that it's not covered with cataracts like the other one, 'cause the look in that eye is twice as old as Penny's cat an' a lot hungrier.

 An' then I blink an' I see the righteous Goth chick again an' she's smilin' an' laughin' an' whoa-mama, is she a kick in the crotch, but when I look in the reflections in the windows of the shops next door, all I can see is the old bat strapped into the young chick's clothes.

 At least that's what I see, 'cause everyone else is smilin' an' laughin', or not as takes their fancy, but no one is takin' any notice of the righteous Goth chick 'cept as one hot babe who's too cool to touch.

 I pause at the end of the line an' nudge my spirit guide. "Thad, check 'er out. Watcha see?"

 "See?" Thad echoes. "I can only assume you're referring to the woman standing next to the door. I see a woman divided; the left side of her is young and beautiful, but strangely repellent, while the right is ancient to the point of death, though much more natural. Strange. I can only assume that she suffers from a divided fate as do you, Peter. Also, take note of the intriguing tattoo on her forehead; a signet of some form, but I must admit that I find it singularly disturbing, though I've never seen its like."

 I usually don't like lookin' any harder than I do already, but Thad's piqued my curiosity, an' I give her the hairy eyeball, an' holy shit, Thad's right, right there on her forehead are a couple circles filled with funny letters an' squiggly lines, an' I know what it is, though only place I ever seen one before is in a book, an' I hope I never see one again.

 Let me tell you somethin'. You know how kids like stickin' little tags in their books that say Ex Libris or 'This Books Belongs To' an' have a little picture with all sorts of flowery shit like hearts an' unicorns an' teddy bears, along with their signature an' address so if the book gets lost, someone can send it back to them? Well, kids ain't the only ones who do shit like that. Demons do it too, an' they each got their own special sigil like cattle ranchers got their brands, an' when they get a soul, they burn it with their own special mark so the other demons won't go poachin' on the souls that belong to them.

 I saw a book once that had a whole bunch of demon sigils in it, an' I didn't want to look at it very long so I don't know which demon's bookplate this lady had stuck on her forehead, but shit, I was scared, 'cause if you know anythin' about demons, the ones that got bookplates are the high-class mucky-muck types an' not the little shit imps like the ones in the nut house who go around sittin' on your shoulder goin' "Kill! Kill! Fuck your mother!"

 But a couple girls had slipped into line behind me when I was lookin' at the hag chick's forehead, an' I'm standin' there, an' I can't just go back to the car 'cause then the bat chick would notice that I'd noticed, an' like Thad told me earlier, people don't take too kindly to you noticin' nasty facts about them that they're tryin' to hide, an' fuck, if I were four hundred years old an' had a demon's bookplate stuck to my forehead, I wouldn't want to go advertisin' either.

 So I just get my money an' my I.D. out, an' I can see the hag chick checkin' out my driver's licence as I check in, an' fuck, she's already got her hand stamped, an' she cruises in after me, an' the deejay has Kill Sister Kill on an' I just wander on up an' through an' over to the upstairs bar, Thad close behind me, an' fuck, I've never been so glad to be around a ghost before, 'cause he's one more person between me an' the bat chick with the demon's bookplate on her forehead.

 I get a seat at the bar, an' Thad takes the empty one next to me, an' I get a beer, an' he gets nothin', an' fuck, I knew it was goin' to happen, my warnin' bell's goin' off like a fire alarm, an' the next thing the bat chick is next to me an' she's sayin', "Is this seat taken?"

 I try to play it cool. "Do you see anyone sittin' there?"

 She looks at Thad, or really right through him, an' smiles an' says, "No," an' she sits down, but Thad's a ghost an' he's used to people nearly sittin' on him so he's out of there, but fuck, I swear it, the dragon's head on his cane comes to life for a second an' hisses at her, an' that's a real trick, 'cause the cane's as dead an' buried as Thaddeus is, an' twice as old.

 But the woman next to me looks like she could beat them both by a long shot even if you added both their ages together, but then I blink an' she's beautiful again, 'cept for the demon's sigil on her forehead, an' she leans over an' smiles an' breathes out through perfectly made-up black lips, "Buy a lady a drink?"

 I take a swig of my beer, wishin' it was somethin' a lot stronger, but I shrug an' say, "Sorry. I'm broke. This is about all I can afford." I slosh my beer an' she smiles, an' it's the most beautiful smile I've ever seen, an' I'm not lookin' at the demon sigil. Not lookin' at it no way.

 Then I blink an' the old hag is leerin' at me, an' she reaches out one withered hand an' puts it on mine an' says, "Let me buy you one then," an' I flinch back, blinkin', an then she's drop-dead gorgeous again an' leanin' over to the bartender, who's givin' her this look of jealousy an' lust, equal parts mixed, an' the Goth chick is sayin', "Bartender, something special. Goldwasser and Aquavit. Two, please."

 Then I see the hag again, but the bartender is still givin' her the lust-envy look, an' she's sayin', "I'm sorry, but we don't have any--"

 "Oh, I'm sure you do. I can see them from here, those two bottles in the back." An' the bartender gets down on her knees an' reaches to the back of the liquor cabinet an' pulls out these two bottles, all fancy, an' one of them has flecks of gold floatin' 'round in it, but I been to Death Guild before an' they didn't have no Goldwasser then, an' none of that other stuff either, but the bartender is fixin' up glasses of them next, neat, an' I don't recall the bar havin' glasses anywhere near that nice either, but they do now, an' the bartender sets the drinks in front of us an' the old hag hands her a fifty an' says, "Keep the change," an' fuck, I blink an' next thing she's the knockout Goth chick an' she's raisin' her glass an' says, "To pleasure," an' tosses it back.

 I grab mine, but I stop myself before I slug it back, no matter how much I want to, 'cause fuck, you don't take candy from strangers, an' you don't take drinks from women with demon brands on their souls. An' I wince an' blink one eye an' not the other, an' fuck, I'm seein' 'em both, the Goth chick an' the old bat, one over the other like a double-exposure.

 "My name's Jodi," she says, then looks down at my drink, "Go ahead, try it. You'll like it," an' there's little specks of gold floatin' around in it, blue and gold, an' I set it down 'cause I don't want to trance out, not lookin' at somethin' like that, 'specially not somethin' that's been give' to me by a woman who can't make up her mind whether she's young or old an' has a demon's bookplate stuck on her forehead.

 "Ain't finished my beer yet," I say, an' I take a pull from it, an' she just smiles an' takes a sip of her own drink, gold an' blue, but fuck, just the smell of it is a turn-on, an' if it weren't for seein' the old hag an' the demon's brand on her soul, my cock would be thumpin' the underside of the bar.

 "You're Peter," she says an' puts her hand on my knee, an' fuck, my cock does jump at that, 'cause it can't see the wrinkles or demon's sigil, an' in four-hundred years, she's learned how to turn a trick or two, that's all I can say. But she says, "I saw your I.D, and I know your friend Penny. Haunted Peter, Spooky Pete, that's what they call you."

 "You where she got her cat?" I say, an' her hand stiffens on my leg then, like a claw, an' that sure ain't sexy, but then she relaxes an says, "Why yes. My cat, her cat, who can really say? Who can ever claim ownership of a cat?" an' she laughs, long and light, but it sounds real fake an' strained, "I'm sure Grimalkin will come back when he tires of her," but she doesn't sound so sure, an' I decide that what gave me the creeps about the cat wasn't how old it was, but that it had spent that much time with her.

 An' I want to get out of there real bad, but I don't want to piss the bitch off, so I lock eyes with Thad an' he smiles an' nods an' says, "Perhaps a trip to the ladies room would be in order," an' whacks Jodi's glass towards her.

 But shit, the only thing I ever saw move that fast was a vampire, 'cause Jodi catches it before it spills even one drop. "Clumsy--" she says, then stops, 'cause the bartender is at the other end of the bar, then she looks around. "Strange. Do you think there might be ghosts here, Peter?"

 I don't see any reason to hide it. "Sure. There's ghosts everywhere. Just don't get 'em mad."

 An' she looks around an' I think she's got a little spooked, 'cause I'm thinkin', if this bitch is into demons, then I'll bet even money she's killed more than one person, an' if she fucked up even once an' didn't get a demon (if you can call that fuckin' up), then a demon weren't there to eat the person's soul an' she's gonna have at least one real pissed dead person out there, an' I wouldn't want to trade places with someone who did somethin' like that.

 Then she cocks her head at me, an' I'm seein' the hag an' the knockout at the same time, an' she says, "You don't trust me, do you, Peter?" an' fuck no, I don't trust her, but all I say is, "Sorry. 'don't trust anyone."

 Then she picks up her drink an' swirls it aroun', gold dancin' in the blue, an' she says, "Poor Peter. So much pain. Let me take the pain away . . ." an' she takes a sip, and then fuck, I told you how fast that bitch can move, she grabs me by the back of the head an' she pulls me close an' sticks her tongue between my lips, an' I don't want to let her in, but I do, an' the next thing I know I taste this sweet taste like lemons and cloves, an' shit, it's the drink she wanted me to take a sip of, an' then I just melt an' black out an' I'm scared 'cause it feels so good and so dark and warm all around, like dyin' did, like falling asleep in the snow.

 An' then I wake up, or at least I think I do, 'cause it's warm an' there isn't any pain an' I hear people laughin' in the background, but it's nice laughter, not mean, an' there's a smell like apples an' smoke an' I open my eyes an' I'm lyin' on a couch, crushed green velvet, made for lyin' down on like those psychiatrists got in the old pictures, not like the real ones, 'cause I been in those places an' the couches the shrinks have are made of orange vinyl with scratches on them from where people have chewed them.

 But this one's nice, like I said, an' instead of wearin' my own clothes, I've got a tux on, old-fashioned black velvet, an' the apple smell's comin' from the fireplace next to me, an' the flames are jumpin' an' cracklin', but it's not a real fire, I can tell, 'cause if it were a real fire I'd be trancin' out an' seein' little pictures, or salamanders dancin' in the flames, but it's not, 'cause all there is is a fireplace with a fire in it, nothin' else.

 An' opposite me, on another fancy old-fashioned shrink's couch, is Jodi, but she don't look like the old hag no more, an' I don't see the demon sigil on her forehead neither, an' all of the Goth chick stuff is gone too 'cept for the long black hair, an' she's wearin' this red velvet dress, but it's real nice, not slutty, like somethin' your sister would buy for a Christmas party, with poofy sleeves an' lace an' a little heart-shaped silver locket in place of the ankh 'round her neck, an' fuck, no matter how hard I look, I can't see nothing wrong with her, an' with nothing else neither.

 Then this Mexican girl comes up, dressed in another Christmas dress, but this one's blue, an' she's got a tray with a pitcher an' a couple of mugs an' I can smell the cinnamon comin' from it, an' the chocolate, an' Jodi says, "Thank you, Consuela. No, I'll manage," an' she takes the tray from her an' sets it on the little table between us an' starts pourin' cups of Mexican chocolate.

 "Where the fuck am I?" I say, an' she starts to try an' give me a cup of chocolate, but then when I won't take it, sets it down an' says, "The Hellfire Club."

 I don't know whether she's makin' a bad joke, or the demons are, but I say, "The Hellfire Club's a place in the X-Men comic books. And you sure as Hell don't look like Miss Frost, so I guess that makes you Selene."

 "Selene?" she says an' laughs like at some private joke, an' I don't know what's so funny, 'less she knows that Selene's this mutant vampire demon huntress witch who goes around suckin' people dry for their youth an' power, an' that's how she gets her jollies too. "No, I've never gone by that name, I'm afraid. I'm Jodi. And the Hellfire Club is much more ancient than . . . what was that comic book you mentioned?"

 "The X-Men."

 "Yes, yes, the X-Men. No, I'm afraid that the Hellfire Club goes back quite a bit further, publicly to at least the eighteenth century. A meeting place for philosophers, revolutionaries, freethinkers. Why, Benjamin Franklin was even a member."

 She gets this dreamy look in her eyes an' sips her chocolate an' I don't care, I know she's a witch, an' she knows I know, an' she knows I got power, so I say, "How was old Ben in the sack?"

 "Quite amusing," she says, then looks at me, realizin' what she said, then shrugs it off an' leans back an' sips her chocolate. "He wrote an essay on why you should have sex with an older woman, you know. I was the inspiration."

 "'Koo-koo-kachoo, Mrs. Robinson,'" I say, but I ain't The Lemonheads, 'like to think I got more sense than that, an' this Hellfire Club just looks like some nice holiday party at some fancy place 'round Nob Hill, 'cause out the window I can see the City an' the Bay, an' it looks so fuckin' nice 'cause I can't see anythin' but what's in front of me, not people dyin', not scars on people's souls, not love an' fear' an' hate' an' death' an' ghosts' an' demons an' all the rest of that crazy shit, none of it, 'cause it's all just nice an' normal, like a holiday party, an' I want to just sink right back an' relax an' enjoy it 'cause it's nice an' I don't feel or see anythin' wrong, but that's what it's like when you fall asleep in the snow, that's what it's like dyin', an' I want to believe in it but I can't, 'cause if you do, then you fall into darkness just like the Little Match Girl, an' the next day they find your frozen body, an' it may look like Heaven, but it ain't, 'cause Jodi said it was the Hellfire Club, an' she's got a demon's bookplate on her soul so she knows what she's talkin' about.

 "Poor Peter," Jodi says, "you're still so very troubled. I thought if I took away the pain, you'd be willing to hear me out. But I see so much of the pain is inside." An' she leans back an' holds her little heart-shaped locket an' takes a sip of her cocoa an' says, "I was so hoping you could help me."

 She looks real pretty, real sweet, just the sort of babe you'd want to hold and stroke her hair an' tell her it's all right, but I know stuff about magic, an' demons, an' shit like that, an' if you say you can help her, she can hold you to it, an' I don't know what sort of help she wants so I hold my trap shut like Thad taught me an' wait for her to say something.

 She finally figures out that just smilin' an' lookin' pretty ain't gonna be enough, so she goes, "I'm very old, Peter. Much older than I look. You probably couldn't guess how old I am," an' I think, Fuck I couldn't, cause I saw the way she looked before she slipped me some of that drink on her tongue, but Thad told me to keep my trap shut, an' you don't talk about a woman's age, so I just let her rattle on. "My time is very near done on this earth. Oh, there are things I could do to extend it--potions, rituals, great secrets and mysteries--and I'll admit that I've done some of them, but it hasn't been enough. Not enough to extend these last few haggard years. And you see, I fear death, not because I fear dying, but because I have made a pact with one of the Dark Masters, Charnas, and after my death he will have my soul. Not for eternity, but for a long, long time."

 She stops and pours herself another cup of chocolate, lookin' for a second at mine, 'cause I haven't touched it an' I'm not gonna, then takes a sip an' smiles an' goes on: "I will not complain of my treatment from Charnas. He has honored his side of the bargain, and I have received for my trouble great power and pleasure, and a long and satisfying life. Almost all on credit. However, the bill is coming due, and He will extend credit no further, and my attempts to extend my life by other means have met with some . . . frustration.

 "And so I thought it might be possible to renegotiate my contract. I will not sell myself short--I have a powerful soul, a fine mind, certain talents, and a place in the order of things. But you, Peter, I must envy, for yours is one of the most powerful spirits I have encountered, and you are marked by Destiny for great things . . . provided you live long enough." She takes a sip of her cocoa and her eyes are sparklin' above the cup, pale green and witchy. "I know what you fear, Peter. Your lifeline is at a crossroads, and if you make a false turn, your Destiny will be at an end. I saw it when I glanced at your palm, when I saw your name.

 "But it needn't be that way. If you were to take my place on my contract, Charnas would surely approve the deal, leaving me free, and giving you many powers and gifts in the bargain. Even freedom from death, Peter. Charnas gave me a greatly extended lifespan and protection from all manner of petty deaths and troubles, and that merely for a promise of servitude for a span of years. For a greater commitment, you might have eternal youth and beauty, as well as freeing me. And in exchange for this boon, Peter, I would willingly serve you as I would have served Charnas for that same period, be your lover, your plaything, your wife, whatever it is you might want."

 I've got a hard-on like you won't believe, an' she starts suckin' on her chocolate an' it feels like she's suckin' on my cock, an' holy shit, I've heard of sympathetic magic an' suggestion, but I never heard of anything like this, an' she's suckin' on the chocolate an' whoa-mama!

 I'm just lyin' there, gaspin' an' pantin', an' then I look up from the shrink's couch an' she smiles over the top of her cup an' licks the cream off her upper lip. "Just a sample of what I can do," she says. "Would you like some more chocolate, or should I finish the rest?"

 I just lie there, panting, an' she smiles, then takes the pitcher an' pours herself another cup, all the way to the brim, an' I feel my cock get hard all over, an' she lifts the cup, not spillin' a drop, an' touches it to her lips, then takes it down an' says, "Are you sure you wouldn't like some chocolate, Peter?" an' fuck, my cock is feelin' like it's gonna burst, an' her long red nails are strokin' the sides of the cup, an' she's lickin' her lips but not tastin' it, an' I can't take it anymore.

 "Finish it," I gasp.

 She smiles and lets her fingernails stroke the cup. "If you insist," she says, an' smiles, an' leans over the cup, just kissin' the surface, then slides her tongue across it, tastin' it, an' I ache an' moan on the couch, an' then she opens her lips an' tilts back her head an' chugs the whole thing all in one gulp an' whoa!

 My eyes are squeezed tight with tears, an' I'm lyin' there, gaspin', an' I finally I open them up an' see Jodi smilin' an' settin' the cup back on the tray, an' then Consuela comes over an' says, "More chocolate, Miss Blake?"

 "No!" I shout, an' there's a pause in the laughter in the room, but then there's a lot more of it an' the sound of clinkin' glasses. Jodi smiles an' bounces her eyebrows. "No, thank you, Consuela. But perhaps later we'll have a dessert wine."

 Consuela leaves, an' Jodi's leanin' on the couch opposite me, her head at the same level, an' she says, "That is but the least of the tricks Charnas taught me. Think, Peter. That and more could be yours tonight and every night."

 Fuck! The bitch wants me to sell my soul for a blowjob, but the way I'm feelin' right now, I'm ready to do it. But a little voice in the back of my head makes me say, "Evil . . ."

 "Oh please, Peter," Jodi says. "This is the Hellfire Club, we're freethinkers here. Evil? What is evil? What, for that matter, is good? Evil is everything that makes us feel good. Lust, hunger, anger, all the passions, all of them are defined as evil, and yet when we satisfy that evil, we feel good. Didn't you enjoy the chocolate? I know that I did. I satisfied my hunger, and that felt good. And I know you felt the same. Don't deny it. You want more." She licks her lips, an' I feel her tongue across my cock. "Maybe not now, but later."

 She rolls on her back on the couch an' hangs her arms over the back, hugging the pad an' closin' her eyes an' smiling. "The Dark Masters are merely the spirits that guide our darker passions, nothing more, nothing less. Don't dismiss them as 'Evil' without knowing what that means. They are our primal urges, the things that give our life its flavor and savor. Without them there would be no art, no beauty, nothing of any meaning in this world of flesh."

 "Then why are you so fuckin' afraid to go with them?" I just manage to gasp it out, but it's somethin' I wanna know.

 Jodi rolls over an' opens her eyes, her hair hangin' down over the back of the couch beside her. "Because I'm afraid it will be too much for me. Oh, I know it may sound silly, but no matter how long I've lived, I'm not yet jaded with this pretty world, and I don't want to give myself over just yet." She smiles an' says, "But I believe you're ready. Let me introduce you to Master Charnas."

 She smiles an' tugs on the locket 'round her neck an' pulls it off an' tosses it into the fireplace an' it lands there in the logs, the silver caught in the coals, right in the devil's den, an' then it lights up like a flare an' the flames crackle purple an' red an' the next thing they boil up an' roll out of the fireplace an' then there's this guy standin' there.

 Remember how I said Dr. Pig was a flash dude? I mean, before he turned into a pig. Well, Dr. P. ain't got nothin' on this guy, 'cause when I say flash, I mean flash, dressed in black leather, stretched an' stressed an' with a purplish sheen, cut an' tailored to a T, an' it doesn't look like cow leather neither, somethin' else, an' he has long nails an' white teeth an' pointed ears an' black hair slicked back from his widow's peak an' he's handsome as the devil, though you'd probably expect that.

 "All hail Master Charnas!" cries everyone in the room but me, an' he waves his hand like he was at Ren Faire an' calls back, "Hail and well met! The Lord of Misrule is here! The Dark of the Year is upon us, so let the merriment continue!" and there's cheers an' then he sweeps Jodi up from the couch an' she just swoons in his arms like she's on a romance novel cover, if romance novels had demons on them, an' he says, "Kiss me, Jodi, my sweet," an' he grabs her an' holds her tight in a clench an' whoa-boy! I can feel his tongue on my cock, an' I'm not gay or nothin' but that kiss was like nothin' Jodi ever gave me, an' what she gave me was like nothing I ever had before, an' I just pass out an' moan.

 An' I wake up to hear him sayin', "Chocolate. You've been drinking chocolate, Jodi dearest, and here's the dear boy and we've hardly been introduced. Naughty girl." An' I open my eyes to see him give her another kiss, but real chaste, on the lips but with the mouth closed, but I still feel it on my cock.

 I look at him, an' he smiles at me, an' all his teeth are pointed, but then he looks at Jodi an' says, "Very naughty girl. You've put a spell on him. How do you expect me to enter into a compact if his senses are deceived? Remove the scales from his eyes."

 "But Master," says Jodi, "he could not bear to see you in your full glory!" an' I don't know jack about scales, but the line sounds fake to me, an' then Charnas says, "Jodi . . ." an' she blows two kisses towards me, an' holy fuck, I can see again, see the way I usually do, an' Jodi's an old hag with blood runnin' down her face from where his tongue cut her, an' the fireplace has little imps dancin' around in it fuckin' like weasels, an' Charnas . . .

 Holy fuck, I don't know what to say. Charnas, he . . . Like when he kissed me, but . . . Oh God, an' I don't say that lightly. You know I don't. I'm lookin' in the face of a god, 'cause he ain't like the usual run of demon, nosiree, he ain't. An' I ain't gettin' a straight look at 'im neither, cause I'm lookin' at the floor, an' oh shit, the sight's still burnin' me, an' I squeeze my eyes shut an' I scream, 'cause I don't ever wanna look at that again, but a part of me wants to look at him straight on an' burn right up, an' oh fuck, it hurts, it hurts so bad I don't ever want it to stop.

 An' then I hear his voice, an' it's all aroun' me, an' it feels like blood's pourin' out my ears, it feels so good, an' he says, "ALLOW ME TO APPEAR IN A MORE HUMBLE SEMBLANCE."

 "Yeah! Sure! Please! Anything!" an' then I feel nails on my face, an' two kisses on my eyelids, an' I open them an' I look up, an' it's Charnas again, but the way he looked before, just flash an' handsome an' not so great you can't take it, an' his tongue slides out, long an' thin, an' touches my ears, an' I moan, an' I can hear again, but then I look aroun' an' he's the only thing that's changed, 'cause Jodi still looks like an old bat an' the imps are still goin' at it in the fireplace an' aroun' the room are people with demon bookplates stuck on their foreheads, some Charnas's, some not, an' ladies without souls, an' guys with demons in them, but I mean regular demons, not high mucky-muck types like Charnas with the bookplates an' all that.

 Charnas smiles an' lets his nails trail down my face, an' it's the biggest turn-on I've ever felt, an' I don't want him to move away, but I do, an' he ends up goin' down my arm an' holdin' one of my hands in his own as he's kneelin' next to me an' he raises it to his lips an' kisses it, then he pauses an' his tongue slides out again, long an' thin, an' licks me aroun' the wrist an' I just about pass out, but he holds my arm so I don't fall back off the couch. "Pardon me, dear Peter. That was so forward of me earlier, we'd hardly been introduced, but Jodi can be so careless with her charms." He smiles an' licks his lips, an' I feel just a whisper of it lick along me, but that's enough to make me moan, an' Charnas smiles. "Jodi tells me you might be interested in taking over her contract. And while I would deeply regret losing the services of so sweet and accommodating a soul as Jodi, I must admit she told the truth, you are a prize worth fighting for. And so," he says, "what would you like in your contract?"

 There's a pen on the table then, an old-fashioned fountain pen, and an inkwell and a piece of parchment and a little knife. But the inkwell's empty, but I know what's supposed to go in it, an' fuck, the threads are janglin' around me and it's now or never, live or die, but I don't want it now, but it's gonna go down anyway, an' I say, "I want my fuckin' lawyer."

 Charnas pauses an' lets go of me an' I nearly fall off the couch, but I grab it an' the headrush helps me come to. "Dear me. You children of the modern age. So distrustful . . ." but I'm lookin' around, but I don't see Thaddeus, an' shit, I'm seein' everythin' else too, so I should see ghosts unless they're not here, an' I look aroun' an' scream, "Thad! Where the fuck are you?"

 "Goodness, Peter. I was wondering when you would have the sense to call," Thad says, an' he's there, standin' right next to me, then he looks around an' sees Charnas an' Jodi an' the whole bunch of people without souls or with demons or bookplates or fuck-all who knows what evil shit wrong with their souls. "My, it appears you've gotten us into a rather difficult situation."

 "I am Charnas, the Lord of Misrule," says Jodi's high mucky-muck demon lover and he grinds his pointed teeth at Thaddeus. "Who are you and what business have you here, shade?"

 Thad's in his element all of a sudden, 'cause he's doffin' his hat in a long flourish an' makin' a fancy bow, then coming back up. "Thaddeus Anthony Winters, attorney at law, Advocate for the Loyalists, Herald to the Hierarchy, and duly bonded and appointed spirit guide to Peter Cameron, my client, by the authority of the Fates. My card, sir," he says an' hands Charnas this piece of ghost paper, then as the demon's lookin' at it, puts his hat back on an' taps it into place an' the head of his cane is hissin' at Charnas as he does it an' for all I know it's swearin' in Chinese.

 Charnas smiles at Thad an' says, "We shall be seeing a good bit of each other then, Guide Winters, for your Peter will soon be contracting with us for a period of service, we hope a long one."

 Thaddeus adjust his spectacles on their ribbon an' looks at me an' says, "Indeed?" an' I'm rememberin' what it felt like when Charnas touched me, an' I point to the table an' say, "I ain't signed nothin', but he's got a contract," an' Thaddeus goes an' picks it up, which I guess he can do, all cold an' proper, 'cause it's a demon contract, but Jodi's lookin' at it floatin' the air by itself I guess, 'cause she can't see ghosts, an' then Thad turns to Charnas an' says, "Sir? A blank contract?"

 An' Charnas says, "I meant to fill it in."

 An' Thad says, "Indeed you will, sir. And I will be going over every last letter."

 An' Charnas says, "You approve?"

 An' Thad says, "It's not for me to approve or disapprove. It is for me to negotiate and find the best possible deal for my client, and advise him of the best course of action, and currently that is to not sign anything until I have inspected every last letter. Moreover, I object to my client being drugged and spirited away, and I might add that it reflects very badly on you, Lord Charnas, to use such tactics. Very badly indeed."

 Charnas looks real upset, then he takes his long nails an' grabs Jodi by the chin, an' she's still bleedin' from where he kissed her, an' says, "Jodi, sweet, this will not do at all. Take Peter back to where you found him, and in the meanwhile I will . . . negotiate . . . with Guide Winters." He looks to Thaddeus. "Will that be acceptable?"

 Thaddeus considers. "For the time being, yes. First off we will need to work on ironclad definitions of the soul and eternity. Do you agree that that is reasonable?"

 Charnas grinds his teeth. "That will take a great deal of time."

 "Indeed." Thad smiles. "But you must surely admit that that is the prerequisite before any truly meaningful contract may be drawn up involving either, and I assume that you would want both."

 "One would suppose so," Charnas grinds out, then looks to me, "But before you go, charming Peter, let me give you a gift. A little trifle to remind you of your time spend with us, and an apology for these unfortunate misunderstandings." He smiles an' waves his claws. "No strings attached."

 "Let me also," says Thaddeus, "remind you, Peter, of the Fates and politicians: Accepting anything from anyone--no matter how innocently--may taint you in the eyes of those opposed to same," an' Charnas looks like he'd like to eat Thad's soul right now, but Thaddeus says, "It is also grounds for dismissal of any contract if it can be proven that one party has interfered with the other's legal counsel."

 "Jodi!" Charnas says, an' she comes over to me an' leads me to the door, an' she's leerin' at me like she's still all sexy, but she's actually just an old bald hag with one good eye an' only one tooth. "I will always remember this evening, Peter," she says, an' licks her lips, an' I still feel her tongue across me, then she opens the door an' I get the fuck out of there, an' the next thing I know, I'm standin' outside the Trocadero, but it's closed, 'cause it's a lot later in the evenin'.

 An' Jodi an' Charnas an' all the rest of their gang are gone, an' I look aroun', then get my ass down the street to where I parked my car, an' thank God, I got my leather jacket back on instead of the velvet tux Jodi dressed me in, an' I grab out my keys an' open the door an' climb inside an' slam the lock tight, an' it feels good to have the iron between me an' all the weird shit out there.

 "Snip-snip," says a voice. "Snip-snip." An' I look in the rearview mirror, an' there, in my back seat, is Madame Cleo, an' my thread, an' her brand-new shiny Ginsu scissors, an' I turn 'round an' she ain't there, but then I turn back forward an' I see her in the mirror goin' "Snip-snip, snip-snip," an' fuck, I can't take it anymore, an' I scream, "Fuck! Thaddeus, get your ass over here!" an' Thad appears in the seat next to me, his top hat gettin' scrunched into the roof, an' once he gets it off I say, "There's one of the Fates in the back seat an' she's gonna cut my fuckin' thread! I want you to sue the old biddy!"

 Thaddeus looks around. "Indeed? I don't see anything, Peter," an' I look in the mirror, an' I don't see anythin' neither, no Madame Cleo, no scissors, no thread. Nothin'.

 "Shit, all I want is to be able to control my own life," I say, an' fuck, it's all just too much for me to take, an' I wanna rip my eyes out, it all just hurts so much, an' all I want is darkness. "Just my own Destiny. Can you do it, Thad?"

 "That is the most any man could wish for, and I doubt even Lord Charnas could deliver it." Thaddeus pauses a moment, an' all I hear is silence. Silence an' darkness, an' it's the best thing I ever had. "If it's any consolation, I believe you comported yourself quite well this evening, all things considered."

 "I fucked up."

 "No, you're being unnecessarily harsh on yourself. You are a pawn of Fate, and you managed to avoid being sacrificed, which is the most one can hope for when playing Fate's proscriptive game.

 "When you reach the end of the path they've set you, assuming the metaphor holds true, then you will become a master of your own Destiny and a power to be reckoned with." Thad pats me on the shoulder. "Until then, however, Peter, please, call me the moment anyone mentions contracts."

 He's got that fuckin' right.

 Some days you wanna rip your fuckin' eyes out. You see what I mean now?

 Some days you'd be happier just stayin' in the dark.


Finis

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