The first time it happened I was eating a Western omelette at a diner on Route 1, thinking about nothing in particular. All of a sudden, my heart started to pound like a jackhammer and I broke into a sweat. The funky, sixties-style hanging lamps over the counter suddenly seemed too bright and the music playing softly in the background (I remember it was “Shiny Happy People” by R.E.M.) sounded off-kilter somehow, like music you’d hear in a carnival funhouse, one where the carnies might knife you in the kidney and steal your wallet.
I thought I was having a heart attack. Then my stomach gave a lurch and I ran into the men’s room, barely making it into one of the stalls before I heaved the omelette and the chocolate milkshake I’d been drinking into the toilet in a spectacular splashing cascade of vomit. Then I sank down on the sticky floor and put my hands over my eyes, willing the panicky feeling to go away. It eventually did, after what felt like ten years but was probably less than ten minutes. I wiped off the toilet seat with a wad of toilet paper, flushed once and then again when all the chunks of eggs and green pepper and ham failed to go down. Then I stood up on shaky legs and splashed cold water on my face. My reflection in the mirror looked five years older than it had that morning. My eyes were haunted and my skin was sickly pale under my tan. I looked like my dad used to after a round of chemo for the lung cancer that eventually killed him.
That was my first panic attack. Fun times, as the kids say.
I never knew when the panicky feeling would strike, that was the hell of it. I might be fine for days, weeks even, and then I’d be shopping for groceries or putting air in my tires, when out of nowhere I’d get hit with an ice-cold blast of pure fear. It got so I stopped going out, except when I had no other choice. I had my groceries and my booze delivered. I had cable TV for entertainment, as well as the lovely Destinee, who made house calls and who described herself on her website as a therapeutic masseuse. I paid my bills online and managed to get the garbage out to the curb twice a week by concentrating on counting the steps to the curb and back.
Despite all my maneuvering I still had to go out sometimes. I wished I could work from home, like some of the people did whom I met online in a chatroom for agoraphobics, but I couldn’t. My job wouldn’t allow it. It seemed a shame, what with Disabilities Act being the law of the land, that my boss couldn’t make accommodations for my very real disability and set it up so I could work from home, but he couldn’t.
That’s perfectly understandable, given that my boss is a loan shark and I’m the guy who whacks people who fail to pay up. My boss, James Xavier O’Malley is a big, sentimental bear of an Irishman, a real sweetheart of a guy, unless you fail to pay the vig and then Jimmy isn’t so sweet anymore. He’d probably want to help me out if he knew about my condition, which he doesn’t, but what could he do? It’s not like he could tell some deadbeat to go over to my house, ring the bell and get whacked where I feel comfortable. No, I have to go where the deadbeats are and that means leaving my house. I hate to leave my house. It’s the only place where I feel safe.
That brings me to three days ago. I was getting out of the shower around 6 p.m. when my cell phone rang. It was Jimmy with a job for me. He stated off by asking how I was feeling. I said I was feeling good, which was true. I was relaxed and happy, all aglow with post-coital endorphins. Destinee had left twenty minutes earlier, after kissing me on the lips and gathering up her massage oils and the other tools of her trade. She maintained that the fact that she always kissed me on the lips before leaving proved she wasn’t a prostitute, because prostitutes don’t kiss their clients on the lips. Destinee is definitely a prostitute, but I figured whatever floated her boat. If it made her feel better to pretend she was a massage therapist, so be it.
“I’m sorry to call at the last minute, but it has to be done tonight,” Jimmy said.
I told him it was no problem. Who would be getting the delivery? (We spoke in code on the phone, in case the boys in blue or the feebies might be listening in.)
“It’s a dude called – you’re gonna love this – Rumalong the Enchanter.”
“You’re shitting me,” I said.
“I shit you not,” Jimmy replied, sounding happy as all get out. “He’s one of those geeky RPG nerds. He plays some stupid game online where grown men pretend to be wizards and go on quests and cast spells and slay dragons and shit. They probably all live in their mothers’ basements and never got laid in their entire lives they’re such losers.”
I asked why Rumalong the Enchanter would be getting a delivery.
“Some other nerd who plays the same game is pissed at him, so he gave our friend in Newark ten pizzas to make sure he gets a special delivery,” Jimmy said.Translated into English, that meant somebody had paid DeShawn Harvey, head honcho of a dope-slinging and murder-for-hire crew out of Newark’s Central Ward called the Sick Slick Sixes (I dare you to say that ten times fast) ten thousand dollars to agree to grease a pretend wizard.
Jimmy said Rumalong the Enchanter, aka Raymond Aldrich, owned a comic book store in East Orange. I was to make the delivery there at 8 p.m., right before he closed for the night. I’d be getting eight pizzas up front with Jimmy keeping the other two for putting me onto the job. When it was done there’d be fifteen more pizzas in it for me. That was a lot of pizzas. Somebody must want this Rumalong character dead really badly.
“Sounds good,” I said. “You know how much I like pizza, but how come one of our friend’s guys isn’t making the delivery?”
That was because they’d refused to do it, Jimmy said, having gotten the idea somehow that Rumalong was a real wizard and being afraid he’d put a curse on them. “You know how blacks are, they’re superstitious as hell,” he said, laughing scornfully at the foolishness of our darker brethren. “They believe in voodoo and curses and all kinds of idiotic shit. Their loss is your gain, am I right?”
I agreed he was right. I didn’t point out that Jimmy had a habit of tossing spilled salt over his left shoulder in order to blind any devils who might be lurking behind him, and how he swore he once saw the ghost of Dutch Schultz sitting all by his lonesome in a booth at the old Palace Chop House in downtown Newark, where he’d been gunned down back in 1935.
I got dressed, took my gun out of the wall safe where I keep it, and gathered up some zip ties in case I had to restrain anybody who might be in the comic book store along with Rumalong. Be prepared, that’s my motto. Then I went online and checked my bank account, the one that’s not located in the U.S. Yes, the eight grand was in there. Satisfied on that score, I set off for East Orange.
I drove my Lexus up the Parkway, listening to a call-in sports radio show. Most of the callers sounded like the kind of socially awkward nerds who probably spent much of their time in front of a computer, pretending to be wizards and virtually boinking warrior chicks. I was feeling fine. I was feeling relaxed, just another guy on his way to work, bringing home the bacon in order to keep a roof over my head and put food on the table.
You’re probably thinking that I’m some kind of a monster, seeing as I get paid to kill people. That’s where you’re wrong. I’m just a guy doing a job, one that if I didn’t do it, someone else would. Besides, everybody dies sooner or later. More often than not it’s prolonged and painful. Few of us will are fortunate enough to wink out in our sleep at age ninety-eight, ensconced in a king-sized bed in a Park Avenue penthouse, snuggled up next to a Brazilian swimsuit model.
For the unfortunate majority, death will steal your dignity long before it steals your life. I watched my dad die of cancer so I know whereof I speak. At the end he was whittled down to yellow skin stretched over knobby bones, his eyes staring out of their sockets like frightened little animals cowering in a cave. He used to sob like a child when the pain got so bad that morphine no longer kept it at bay.
Dad had been a longshoreman, a big, tough, broad-shouldered guy who was always laughing and kidding around until the cancer hit him hard. When we put him in the ground he weighed seventy pounds. The funeral director recommended that the casket be kept closed.
That’s the reality of death. It’s not like in the movies where somebody gets sick, makes a tear-jerking speech and then twitches a couple of times and lies still. Death can be one mean son of a bitch who’ll slowly grind you up before he kills you. The kind of death that I deliver is swift and almost painless. Given the choice, wouldn’t you rather get one behind the ear from someone like me instead of spending your last days in a nursing home, wearing urine-soaked Depends?
Distant Galaxy Comics and Collectibles, Rumalong’s place of business, was in a not-so-great part of town, sandwiched between a dry cleaner and a vacant storefront that used to house something called Beauty Lady Nails. I drove past and saw the lights were on inside. A fat white guy with an unfortunate neck beard – presumably Rumalong — was behind the counter. He appeared to be the only one in there. So far so good.
I parked around the corner and got out, humming “We’re Off to See the Wizard.” This should be a piece of cake. I’d punch Rumalong’s ticket, empty the cash register to make it look like a robbery and head back south. I might make it home in time to catch some of the Knicks game.
When I opened the door to Distant Galaxy, I was greeted with the opening strains of the theme song from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the one that goes daaah-daaah-daaah-DAH-DAH! The guy behind the counter looked up. He had full-sleeve tattoos of skulls and lightning bolts and dragons done in a swirly, Asian-looking style that he probably imagined marked him out to be one seriously hip dude. In reality he just looked like every other loser who collects comic books.
“Hi,” I said. “How ya doin’?”
The guy smiled and said he was doing fine. He came out from behind the counter and asked if I was looking for anything in particular. I said I was looking for something for my nephew, Bobby.
“He got an A on his spelling test, so I thought I’d get him a comic book or something as a reward.”
I really do have a nephew named Bobby, but he’s twenty-nine years old and lives in Arizona with his girlfriend and her three kids. I doubt he ever passed a spelling test, let alone got an A on one.
I was pretty sure that the nerd standing before me was Rumalong, but pretty sure won’t cut it in my business. What if this was just some employee and Rumalong was home watching porn and stuffing his face with Hot Pockets? I had to be absolutely certain that this was the right guy.
I stuck out my hand. “I’m Mike Mitchell,” I said. That’s not my name; it’s not even close. The guy took my hand and pumped it twice. His fingers were soft and pudgy and his palm was sweaty. “Ray Aldrich, pleased to meet you.”
Bingo! It was Rumalong all right. I was getting ready to move him toward the back of the store, out of sight of anyone passing by on the street, by expressing an interest in something back there, possibly the light sabre that was displayed on a shelf, or the lucha libre Mexican wrestling mask on a wig stand that was sitting beside it. Instead he gave me a funny look.
“I know who you are,” he hissed, drawing back and glaring at me in a manner that can best be described as baleful. “I discerned it when our hands made contact. You are the bringer of death! Cedric of Arnor sent you, didn’t he?”
“Whoa! Chill out!” I said, holding up my hands. “I don’t know anybody named Cedric, and I’m not the bringer of death, whatever that means. I sell cars.”
I gave him my best reassuring smile. “Honestly, I sell pre-owned vehicles. I can get you a great deal on a Mazda 6 sport automatic. It just came in today, clean as a whistle, two years old and only fourteen thousand miles on it. We’ve got a great financing package available to qualified buyers. Whaddya say? Are you interested?”
“Noooo!” he howled. He took off toward a door in the back that had a sign on it that read PRIVATE. EMPLOYEES ONLY. I ran after him. I couldn’t let him get to a phone to call the cops (the po-po, as the members of the Sick Slick Sixes would say.) I didn’t want him to get to a gun, either, assuming he had one back there. That would be bad.
I ran down an aisle filled with all kinds of crap that I couldn’t believe people paid good money for: little plastic figures of superheroes, comic books lovingly packaged in clear plastic envelopes. There were pulp magazines from the forties and fifties, too, the lurid artwork on the covers depicting scantily clad, big-busted women being menaced by bug-eyed monsters, and muscular G.I. Joes gleefully bayonetting simian-faced Japanese soldiers.
Rumalong threw open the door to the back room and slammed it in my face. I was about to ram it with my shoulder and break it open when something made me try the doorknob. To my surprise, it turned easily. I threw the door open and jumped to one side, expecting to be met by what the long-dead hacks who wrote for the pulps would have called a hail of bullets, but nothing happened.
Cautiously, I peered around the door frame. What I saw pulled me up short. The pathetic jerk wasn’t holding a phone or a gun. He was standing in a shabby little office with a wooden stick about eighteen inches long pointed at me: a magic wand! I laughed in relief and pulled my gun from my waistband.
“What’s up, Harry Potter? Are you going to cast a spell?”
“I am,” he replied, deadly serious. “You may slay my mortal body but you will never escape my undying curse.” He was obviously riding the crazy train. That was fine with me. At least he hadn’t called 911.
He leveled the wand at me and began reciting a string of what sounded like gibberish. I sighed. The poor guy wasn’t only riding the crazy train, he was driving it right off the rails. Then I recognized some of the words he was intoning.
Long ago, I’d attended an all-boys Catholic prep school run by the Jesuits. I’d taken four years of Latin from an old geezer named Father Bernard who looked like an Egyptian mummy. Father Bernard was known for throwing chalk at the heads of boys who dozed off in class. He had an accurate aim. After one time of being clipped on the noggin by one of the good father’s chalk missiles, boys tended to stay alert in Latin class.
Rumalong was speaking Latin, or something close enough to Latin to be a kissing cousin. Vereor. That meant to be afraid of something. And what else was he saying? Something about a house, domus, a house that was no longer something. Safe! That was it! A house that was no longer safe for the bringer of something… Mortem. Oh, hold on! Rumalong was casting a spell that would make the bringer of death no longer feel safe in his own home, one that would percutio (Hit? Strike?) the bringer of death with something fear. Unremitting? Yes, that was it; the curse would strike the bringer of death with unremitting fear.
That’s when I shot him to make him shut up.
The bullet hit him in the forehead. He looked surprised. They always do. Then I shot him again, in the chest this time, then once again for good measure.
I was rattled. This hadn’t gone down at all like I’d planned. I pulled on the gloves that I always carry with me when I’m on a job and retrieved the wand from where it had rolled under the beat-up wooden desk. I half expected to get zapped when I touched it, crazy as that sounds, but nothing happened. It was just a piece of wood.
I laid it on the desk beside a pile of unpaid bills. The one on top was from the electric company and was stamped PAST DUE in red letters. It looked like old Rumalong the Enchanter wasn’t a financial wizard. The thought made me smile a little. I needed to get out of there fast. I went up front and took the cash out of the register. There wasn’t much: ninety-six dollars in bills and some coins. I stuffed the bills in my pocket and left the coins where they were.
I looked around for a security camera and didn’t see one. I went over my movements since I’d entered the store. I’d pushed open the front door with my elbow so I hadn’t left any prints there. I hadn’t touched anything inside with my bare hands. It looked like I was good to go. I left out the back door, walking casually past a dumpster from which came rustling noises that might either be a stray cat or a wino foraging for something to eat. I passed through the alley between the comic book store and the dry cleaner, encountering no one on my way to my car. I got in and headed home.
The encounter with Rumalong had made me uneasy. It would be one thing if he’d put a curse on me that was supposed to give me a brain tumor or make my dick fall off, but he hadn’t. The curse he’d cast (the curse he believed he’d cast, because magic curses don’t exist, outside of fairytales, I sternly reminded myself) was one that was supposed to make me constantly afraid. I wouldn’t even feel safe in my own home. That was the only place where I’d never had a panic attack. It was the only place where I always felt safe.
“Bullshit. The guy was nuts,” I muttered. “He probably memorized those words from some fake book of magic.”
That made me feel better. I turned on the radio and sang along to an oldies station. When Screamin’ Jay Hawkins came on, ominously moaning, “I Put a Spell on You,” I even laughed. That’s how little I knew.
At home, I called Jimmy and told him the delivery had been made. Then I got a beer out of the refrigerator and settled down in front of the TV. The drapes were drawn against the night and I had a fire going in the gas fireplace. Things were nice and cozy. I was just about to go check and see if the Kung Pao chicken that had been delivered from the Chinese place a few days ago still looked edible. If it passed the sniff test I was going to microwave it and make it my dinner.
That’s when I started getting a funny feeling down in my guts.
I once saw a show on TV about migraine headaches where migraine sufferers described their symptoms. Some of them said their headaches started with something called an aura, in which they saw flashes of light or weird, shifting shapes. One woman said she saw what looked like fluttering black fringe out of the corner of one eye. Sometimes it went away after a few minutes and no headache followed. Other times, the black fringe meant a skull-buster of a migraine was on the way. I’ve never had one, but from what I’ve heard about them from people who have, migraines are real bastards.
The woman who experienced the black fringe auras had been a criminal defense attorney and she looked like a tough cookie. Nonetheless she admitted that she sometimes broke down and wept when it happened, knowing she might soon be feeling like her skull was filled with razor blades and shards of broken glass. For the next day or two, even dim light would hurt her eyes and any noise above a whisper would be intolerable. That’s why she wept when she saw the fluttering black fringe: she knew what might be coming.
I didn’t cry when I felt the funny feeling in my guts – not then, anyway – but I felt scared. That’s how my panic attacks always started, with a queasy, twisting feeling in the pit of my stomach, as if I were riding in an airplane that hit an air pocket and dropped a couple of hundred feet. It might be nothing, I thought. Maybe I just needed to eat something.
The Kung Pao chicken passed the sniff test, but I no longer wanted it. There wasn’t anything else in the fridge that I wanted, either.
I felt restless, and the queasy feeling was getting worse. I thought maybe I had to throw up, but when I leaned over the toilet bowl, nothing came up. Nothing came out when I sat down on it, either. I decided it was time to bring out the big guns.
I went back into the kitchen and got a piece of bread and ate that, so I wouldn’t be taking drugs on an empty stomach. Then I got the Xanax bottle out of the medicine cabinet and shook two tablets into my hand. There were three left. I’d call the accommodating doctor who prescribed them for my “trouble sleeping” in the morning and get a refill. The doc was so willing to take pen to prescription pad that he probably wouldn’t have batted an eye if I’d told him I wanted them for menstrual cramps.
I went into the living room, turned off the TV and the fireplace and grabbed my almost-finished beer. After washing the pills down with the last few swallows, I poured myself two inches of Scotch and drank that.
There, I thought, rinsing out the glass and putting it in the dish washer. That should do it. I’d lie down in bed and let the pills and the alcohol take effect. A little anxiety was no match for central nervous system depressants. Soon I’d drift off, wrapped in the loving arms of Morpheus. When I woke up in the morning I’d be fine again.
But I couldn’t get comfortable. The bed that had been perfectly comfortable that afternoon when Destinee and I took it for a spin now felt distinctly unwelcoming. The sheets got all twisted as I tossed and turned. No matter how much I plumped the pillows, they didn’t feel right. Worse, the pills weren’t working. Instead of feeling relaxed and sleepy I was feeling more and more apprehensive.
Shit! I thought. Shit! Shit! Shit!
I got up and went into the kitchen without turning on the lights. I felt safer in the dark. I didn’t want to see the clock on the wall ticking away the seconds or the stainless-steel surfaces of my top-of-the-line appliances. Those things suddenly seemed inimical to me, as did the black granite countertops and the cold, white tile floor on which I was sitting, my back against the wall and my knees drawn up to my chest. None of the things in the kitchen were my friends. It was better to be in the dark, where I couldn’t see them.
I’d felt this way once before, back in the eighties when, like a lot of people who had the wherewithal and the right friends (or the wrong friends, as the case may be) I used cocaine.
A woman I knew named Maxine got it for me. She was a fashion photographer and a party animal who had access to Studio 54 and Area and all the other clubs that were frequented by what used to be called the Beautiful People. Maxine had seemingly endless quantities of cocaine and I happily inhaled massive lines of it like the total pig I was in those days until one night something very bad happened.
Maxine and I had boogied the night away somewhere and I’d gone home feeling chipper. I was feeling so chipper that I thought it would be a good idea before turning in for the night to have some more cocaine. Bad mistake. Apparently it’s possible to take so much cocaine that you give yourself a heart attack, or in my case, feel like you’re simultaneously having a heart attack and going crazy.
The next hours were terrible ones indeed. At one point, I dropped to my knees and frantically gnawed on one of the living room windowsills while peering out at the dark street, terrified that something was coming to get me and feeling like I needed to chew on something or I’d eat my own tongue. Going to the emergency room was not an option, despite the fact that my heart felt like it was about to burst out of my chest. Even thinking about being in a brightly lighted space with people asking me questions was almost unbearable. So I chomped on the windowsill like a giant, crazed beaver and thought about maniacs armed with axes and sawed-off shotguns until the sun rose and the terrified feeling gradually went away.
I never touched cocaine again after that. But now I was experiencing that same amped-up, restless feeling that something horrible was about to happen. This was far worse than any of my previous panic attacks. Damn Rumalong for putting the idea into my head that I was cursed with fear! Unremitting fear, he’d called it. That meant it wouldn’t stop in an hour or so the way my previous panic attacks – even the worse ones – always did. It meant the fear would never stop. I hugged my knees tighter and closed my eyes.
The kitchen felt too big. Something could be coming for me from out of the shadows. I needed to find someplace small to hide until the fear passed. My bedroom closet was a walk-in and was too big for my purposes. All the other closets were full of stuff. I didn’t have time to empty them out. I needed to get somewhere safe right away.
Then I remembered the little closet under the stairs in the basement. Whimpering and feeling my way in the dark, I made my way down there and shut myself in.
The little numbers on the illuminated face of my wristwatch tell me that three days have gone by since I killed Rumalong. The fear hasn’t gone away. If anything, it’s gotten worse.
I’ve come around to thinking that the Sick Slick Sixes were correct in believing him to be a real wizard, bizarre as that may sound.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” I tell the cricket that’s clinging to the cement wall next to my head before I pop him into my mouth and eat him.
He’s a big one – camel crickets, they’re called. My basement hidey hole is full of them. He wriggles going down. When I started getting hungry I’d hoped they’d taste like the shrimp they resemble, with their big, staring eyes and waving antennae, but they don’t. They don’t taste like chicken or popcorn, either. They taste disgusting, but they’re all I have to eat in here, and urine is all I have to drink.
“Some crummy restaurant this is,” I tell the cricket that has hopped onto my left shoe. I eat him too.
I figure I have three options, none of them pleasant. I can stay huddled up in here until I starve to death. That’s the first option. Option two is I force myself to open the door and go upstairs and get my phone from where I left it on the hall table. Just the thought of opening the door fills me with horror. Maybe I could do it, but what then? Who would I call? The police, asking them to send an ambulance because I killed a wizard who put a curse on me and I need to go to the psyc ward because I’m eating crickets and drinking my own pee?
Maybe I could call Jimmy, or Destinee, but what could they possibly do for me?
The third option lies in the safe in my bedroom: my gun. One shot through the roof of my mouth would put an end to the fear, or would it? There’s that other line from Hamlet, the one where the brooding Prince of Denmark talks about suicide, and how there may be dreams waiting on the other side of death, bad dreams.
I decide I’ll count to one thousand. If the fear doesn’t recede by then, and if no better option presents itself, I’ll make a run for the safe. I start counting. One…two…three…