Posted on 2 Comments

Last Of The Aztec Riders – Mark Mellon

beverage-mug-000000Enhance your coffee today

“Buy me a beer and I’ll tell you a good story.”

Jack Pilgrim regarded the one-eyed, one-armed, huge man on the barstool beside his. The half of his face minus an eye was scarred almost beyond recognition as human, his deformed lip pulled down in a perpetual half scowl. After twelve hours on his hog high on meth, Pilgrim only wanted to focus on the shot and the beer before him, drunk to delay and lessen the inevitable bummer.

“Look at the patch on my cut.”

He turned his back to Pilgrim. On the faded black leather vest, a skull with a feathered headdress screamed. The top rocker read “Aztec Riders;” the bottom said “Tiny.”

“I’m the only one allowed to wear this patch, man. Nobody left but me. And I can tell you all about it, the whole freaked out story. But you gotta buy me that beer first, man. So what do you say?”

Intrigued and sympathetic to a biker so fucked up he’d never ride again, Pilgrim nodded to the bartender who poured a draught Bud in a pint glass and set it before Tiny. He knocked it back, set the glass on the bar, and wiped the foam from his scraggly beard with his hand.

“Like I said, I’m the only Aztec Rider left. You should’ve seen us back in the day, bombing a hundred strong in a tight vee formation at eighty per, total road Nazis, blowing through every traffic light. And no one, not no citizen, not no pig, dared fuck with us. We had Bullhead City under our thumb and most of Nevada and Arizona too, at least as far as pussy and meth went. And it was all because of our Prez, Pothunter. See, we called him Pothunter coz he was always poking around in caves on Federal parks and reserves, looking for Indian stuff, old shit, know what I mean? Even if it is a Federal beef. Like we cared about stuff like that. And then he showed up at the clubhouse with this idol, like a real idol, you know-“

***

The clubhouse was a long, one story cinderblock building with a corrugated iron roof in the middle of the desert, surrounded by an ten foot fence topped by concertina barb wire with signs posted that read KEEP OUT! and TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT! in huge, screaming red letters. Inside the dimly lit clubhouse, the Riders sheltered from the roasting heat to the dull roar of a sorely overtaxed wall unit air conditioner, ripped off from a hotel. In the background, John Kay rumbled Close your eyes, girl, Step inside, girl on the tape deck while Tiny snorted yet another line of meth. The room became infinitely extended in his tunnel vision. Blood pounded in his ears like hammers against anvils. He wondered if he was going to pass out.

The door burst open. The blast of light and heat sent the Riders scurrying to

darkness like rats to their holes. Pothunter walked in, a burlap bag held in both hands. A prospect hurried to shut the door.

“Hey, Prez. What you got? Beer or scotch, I hope,” Tiny said.

Pothunter set the dusty bag on the already filthy carpet.

“Lots better, Tiny. I went to Teuwanta State Park and dug some by the cliffs. You won’t believe what I found.”

He undid the rope and pulled down the bag to reveal a terra cotta figure about two feet high, ancient and worn, the paint faded, the features still distinct. The idol was a hideously grimacing, round-headed skeleton, dressed in a mask and garments made from flayed human skin. Internal organs, liver, heart, and kidneys, dangled from an open chest cavity.

“Whoa. What the fuck is that thing, Prez?” almost everyone said simultaneously.

“Our new mascot.”

Pothunter’s broad, red face beamed with pleasure. Tiny had never seen him happier, not even when he beat a Red Devil to death with a chain. He picked up the idol and set it with great ceremony on the card table that held the club’s shrine, composed of pictures of members who were either dead or in prison and some fake Indian relics Pothunter bought in Nogales one time.

“Listen up, everybody. This is the first real find I ever made. It’s some kind of god, some kind of bad, evil thing that just lives to make trouble. You know, like us.  This is bringing us wicked good luck. So I declare a three day party in honor of our new mascot, the god of the Aztec Riders. Bad Bob, tell the mommas to haul ass over here. They got some trains to pull.”

“Bitching,” Tiny bellowed.

The others howled as well, more delighted by the prospect of days of sex, booze, and meth than the idea of an official mascot. Head bent, arms pumping, Pothunter shuffled back and forth before the idol in his own version of a ritual dance. Puzzled and somewhat disturbed by the grotesque figure, like the loyal members they were, others showed club spirit and followed the Prez’s lead. They danced behind him in strict order of precedence, Vice Prez Bad Bob, Secretary Tiny, Treasurer Vulture Ed, and  Sergeant of Arms Bruiser Vito, followed by patch members in order of seniority. Prospects brought up the rear. The Indian Dance became a ritual, a ceremony that set the Riders apart and drew them together.

***

“Swear to God, if our luck didn’t change the day Pothunter found that idol. Like bam, like the biggest, best hit of meth you’d ever want in your life. In no time we had a steady stable of a dozen whores, each one turning over eighty percent of everything she made in tricks. She’d a fucking well better if she didn’t want her ass beat. Plus we had five meth labs going, no bucket shop shit either, man, each one with a real cook who knew his stuff cold. And no cop ever so much laid a finger on us, not one bust in the whole club for eight months, I shit you not.”

Tiny paused to give Pilgrim a significant look with his pale blue orb.

“Storytelling’s thirsty work, you know.”

Pilgrim nodded again. The bartender set another Bud before Tiny. He knocked it down like the first.

“Yeah, so like I said, we was rolling in serious bread after years of nickel and dime bullshit. We knew we was lucky and Pothunter was right. The idol brought us luck. Every weekend we threw a party with enough booze, drugs, and sluts to do up Vegas, and live bands too. And the big climax was always the Indian Dance in front of the idol. Man, you should have seen how we used to get into it. It was downright tribal, know what I mean?”

Tiny frowned with the good side of his face and shut his eye.

“And everything was cool, man, just completely cool, until this bitch came along one night and really started some shit, you know-“

***

The sun was a bloody red eye above the horizon. Clean, fine desert air was marred by the stink of tobacco and marijuana smoke, silence shattered by pounding drums and twanging guitars.

“And this bird you cannot change,” a three hundred pound man in a tiny black cowboy hat wailed from the stage as his band thrashed through primitive chords behind him.

Tiny took a drag off a giant reefer to take the edge off the speed tweaking through his veins and stared at bare breasts flaunted by drunken mommas as they gyrated to the music. He caught Bad Bob’s eye and stuck out his tongue. Bad Bob made a fist and pumped it up and down, the universal symbol for a gang bang.

The night wore on. A select few outsiders were allowed inside the clubhouse to party with the Riders, primarily hangers on and attractive women. Flush with cash, the Riders had refurbished the clubhouse, equipped with a new pool table, fully stocked wet bar, and an impressive new shrine, handcrafted from mahogany by a full patch member who also held down a righteous day job as a cabinet maker. The idol was in its own special niche, topped by a banner that depicted the Riders’ crowned, screaming skull.

Lines of meth were laid out on a table, straws alongside for anyone who cared to snort.  The open bar was staffed by two succulent, young honeys, enormous fake breasts straining against ridiculously tiny t-shirts to the point of rupture. As always, Steppenwolf blared, only now from a state of the art MP4 player.

Last night I found Aladdin’s lamp

The scene was lively, the vibe as mellow as could be among a gang of violent felons high on hard drugs. Tiny tried to take it all in, perception fractured by alcohol and drugs until moments became difficult to link together. He took another drag off the joint, exhaled, and went into a coughing fit.

A loud, brassy, female voice cut through the party chatter and music like a semi-trailer’s klaxon in the desert night.

“So what the fuck is that supposed to be? Santa Muerte or something?”

A fortyish Latina woman drunkenly swayed in the middle of the room, attractive even though overweight, jet black hair flecked with a few silver threads, a loose grin on her face, eyes wide and full of devilry. Miller tall boy in one hand, she pointed at the idol. Wild, chaotic laughter burst from her.

“Where did you gringos find that? In Tijuana? I bet you paid way too much.”

“Listen, bitch, that’s our club mascot, so don’t disrespect it, you hear me,” Pothunter bellowed, his ordinarily red face a brighter shade of beet.  “That’s a genuine pre-Columbian artifact I dug up myself out at Teuwanta State Park.”

“Are you kidding me? Where I come from in Guerrero, factories make stuff like that by the shit ton. Dios mio, que gringo tontería.”

“No, bitch, you’re wrong. This is the genuine, real thing that I dug up with my own hands. And I’m gonna prove what I mean right now. Members. It’s time for the Indian Dance.”

Pothunter dropped low and began the familiar windmilling shuffle. The other Riders fell in behind him with the precision of a well rehearsed dance team. Back and forth they danced before the idol in zigzag lines, each man caught up in the intricate dance steps, faces serious and grave.

“Oh, shit, I can’t believe this shit. This has got to be the funniest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. Ay, que broma.”

Her beer gut rhythmically shook with laughter, the whites of her eyes and teeth flashing in the black strobe light.

“Bitch, I’ve had fucking enough of you,” Pothunter screamed.

He ran over to the woman and with one vicious uppercut knocked her sprawling, out cold before she even hit the linoleum. Tiny put two fingers to his mouth and blew out a long, loud appreciative whistle.

“Down with one sock. That’s why Pothunter’s Prez. Yes, sir, Aztec Riders forever.”

The Indian Dance continued. The woman lay where she fell, ignored by everyone. The night wore on. Before Tiny knew it, sense of time destroyed by drugs, it was three in the morning and no one in the clubhouse but the few most hardened partiers and the unconscious woman.

“Tiny, chop up some more flake,”

“Sure thing, Prez.”

Tiny dumped a hefty pile of meth flake onto a mirror and chopped it fine with his buck knife. The woman on the floor moaned loudly. Pothunter looked over at her and grinned.

“Looks like she’s coming round. Good thing too. Now we can kick her ass out.”

She sat up and cradled her aching jaw in her hands.

“Oh, you motherfuckers. You cracked my tooth.”

She looked up and focused on Pothunter.

“You’re a real brave man, you are, punching a woman. Que hombre.”

“Yeah, well, you see what you get, bitch, when you disrespect the Aztec Riders.” Pothunter said.

She got to her feet, still good and drunk and plenty angry too.

“Disrespect a bunch of pussy, pinche cocksuckers like you, you fucking gringo. I got chulo buddies that eat little shits like you alive. Fuck you and fuck your stupid idol most of all. Pendejo joto cabron.”

She spat at Pothunter.

“Bitch, I’ve had just about enough of your fucking shit,” Pothunter said.

He ran over to the woman, knocked her flat again, and kicked her repeatedly with his steel toed Chippewa boots. Other Riders joined in, punched and kicked her as she writhed and screamed on the floor.

“Hold her down. Hold the fucking cunt down,” Pothunter ordered.

Riders pinned down her arms and legs. Bad Bob crooked a massive arm around her head and pinned her jaws shut. Pothunter took out his Bowie knife with the sixteen-inch blade. He slit the woman’s shirt open, bared her soft, unmuscled gut. Tiny’s eyes went wide with joy. He loved nothing better than a gangbang.

Pothunter raised the knife high over his head. The woman’s eyes went wide with fear. She tried to break free, but half a dozen bikers held her down hard.

“Now you’re going to pay for your fucking disrespect, cunt.”

“No, Prez, no,” Tiny bellowed. “Not in front of witnesses.”

Pothunter’s knife stabbed down, deep into the woman’s stomach, just below the sternum.

AAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH

The scream that poured through her clenched teeth deafened everyone in the clubhouse, a horrible, mortal wail of pain. Pothunter nonetheless dug the cruel blade in deeper, rent her stomach open into a gaping wound.

“We’re gonna worship the idol the real way, the Aztec way.”

Deep into shock, her eyes rolled back into her head. Her body thrashed uncontrollably. Beer gutted bikers could barely hold her down. Pothunter jammed his right hand into the open wound. He fished around for a moment, grunted with satisfaction when he found what he wanted, and with one, awful, tearing wrench yanked her heart loose from its mainstrings.

The screams ended. The woman lay still, quite dead. Covered with gore, Pothunter stood tall and proud. In his bloodstained hand, to the Riders’ awe and terror, a still beating heart. Black blood oozed from ventricles.

“This is just like the Aztec priests did it, brothers. Good enough for them, good enough for us. This is going to change our luck forever.”

He took the heart and held it high before the idol.

“Accept our sacrifice.”

Pothunter smeared the idol with the heart. Blood stained the idol’s face. Pothunter smiled widely, drunkenly, well pleased with his handiwork.

There was an awful thunderclap, a crash of doom like the last trump. The lights went out.

“What the fuck happened?”

A grotesque figure appeared before them. A skeletal corpse clad in another man’s flayed hide crouched before them, the idol brought to life. Internal organs dangled from his open chest cavity, lungs, liver, and beating heart. The god’s unsmiling mouth protruded slightly from the splayed lips of the expertly skinned face that covered his own. Vertical stripes ran down the mask. The flayed man’s hands hung loose by his wrists. Long tassels hung down his back from his elaborate, green-feathered headdress. Beneath the flayed garments, yellow skin was painted red.  Blood and pus seeped to the floor from the abscesses and open sores that covered his body. The smell of rotting flesh was unbearable. Blue flames burned in the flayed mask’s eyeholes, the only light in the otherwise black clubhouse.

Pothunter smiled broadly. He pointed to the bizarre apparition and gestured widely to his brothers.

“Do you see this shit? It fucking works. Everybody get down on your knees and bow.”

Addled with drugs and adrenaline, caught up in the moment, the Riders automatically did as their Prez bid. They got down on their knees and bowed low to their mascot made flesh. Pothunter even made so bold as to approach the idol and  present the heart to the idol, thick blood caked on his hand.

The apparition’s face split wide in a soundless roar. So did the flayed skin of the victim’s face. The skin ripped into pieces to reveal the wearer’s broad-nosed, cat-mouthed face, only to have that split wide. With a great gush of blood and splintered bone, the face destroyed itself to show a new one. The tiny, fine-haired head of a squalling infant screamed for his mother’s dug only to also split wide with a violent wrench of flesh and bone to show a handsome, young man, red face smooth and unlined. The handsome face seamed down the middle and ripped in twain. There in its place stood the withered, drooling countenance of an incredibly old man, only to have the hoary face crack in turn to show the grinning skull that lurks under every human face.

Bits of bloody flesh and fragments of shattered bone spattered Pothunter’s face. Slack-jawed with fear, eyes fixed on the exploding head despite the endless spray of gore, Pothunter managed to scream at last, a long and low, pitiful wail like a small animal about to die.

The idol stuck his long nails like daggers into Pothunter, ripped him to literal shreds before the other Riders like an angry child with a newspaper.

“Shit. Run for it.”

Riders ran for the door, but it was padlocked shut and the lock wouldn’t turn. A few men had enough nerve to pull their pieces and fire at the monster. Bullets riddled the walking corpse, but it just kept on coming, a trail of gore and lymph behind it. Grim face indifferent to their misery behind his flayed mask, he inflicted the same fate on each man, tore them into bloody gobbets of meat, rent them asunder limb from limb. Brave men who’d sworn never to crumble or bend the knee, each begged for mercy in his turn, called out for his mother, only to be tortured to death, maimed and savaged until he died with a last, despairing  cry.

Tiny found himself outside the compound with no idea how he got there. His right arm hung useless and shattered by his side. Blood streamed from the ruins of his left eye socket. In the distance, he could hear a siren’s wail, a police car or an ambulance. Tiny stumbled toward the approaching siren, his only hope for survival.

***

“And that’s the straight and narrow of it, swear to God on a stack of Bibles before my mother’s grave, every last word of it. Only thing I can’t figure out is why I was the only one to get out of it, even if it wasn’t it in one piece.”

“Because you told your Prez to stop before she killed the woman,” Pilgrim said.

Tiny considered this, then shrugged.

“Maybe so, but it’s still about the God damnedest thing I ever saw. Think you wanna stand me another beer, man? Just one bro helping another, you know?”
Pilgrim pulled out his trucker’s wallet and put three twenties down on the bar.

“Keep the change,” he told the bartender.

He headed toward the door only to have a painfully thin blonde woman intercept him. Once even more than passably pretty, her delicate features were ravaged and gaunted by hard living.

“You didn’t believe that line of bullshit he was handing out, did you?” she said with a conspiratorial grin, teeth blackened from meth abuse. “He just blew himself up cooking meth, that’s all. You ain’t headed to Kingman, are you? I’m not too proud to slut a ride, if you know what I mean. You got any meth on you?”

“Sorry. I ride alone.”

Pilgrim went through the batwing doors, outside into heat that smothered him like a funeral pall. He saddled his Indian, kick started the engine, and drove off into the night.

 

Posted on 3 Comments

Shut In by Jill Hand

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…

The End