practical demonkeeping - Page 3


5

AUGUSTUS BRINE

He was an old man who fished off the beaches of Pine Cove and he had gone eighty-four days without catching a fish. This, however, was of little consequence because he owned the general store and made a comfortable enough living to indulge his passions, which were fishing and drinking California wines.

Augustus Brine was old, but he was still strong and vital and a dangerous man in a fight  –  although he had had little cause to prove it in over thirty years (except for the few occasions when he picked up a teenage boy by the scruff of the neck and dragged him, terrified, to the stockroom, where he lectured him alternately on the merits of hard work and the folly of shoplifting from Brine's Bait, Tackle, and Fine Wines). And while a weariness had come upon him with age, his mind was still sharp and agile. On any evening one might find him stretched out before his fireplace in a leather chair, toasting his bare feet on the hearth, reading Aristotle, or Lao-tzu, or Joyce.

He lived on a hillside overlooking the Pacific, in a small wooden house he had designed and built himself, so that he might live there alone without having his surroundings seem lonely. During the day, windows and skylights filled the house with light, and even on the most dismal, foggy day, every corner was illuminated. In the evening three stone fireplaces, which took up whole walls in the living room, bedroom, and study, warmed the house. They offered a soft, orange comfort to the old man, who burned cord after cord of red oak and eucalyptus, which he cut and split himself.

When he considered his own mortality, which was seldom, Augustus Brine knew he would die in this house. He had built it on one floor with wide halls and doorways so that if he were ever confined to a wheelchair he might remain self-sufficient until the day when he would take the black pill sent to him by the Hemlock Society.

He kept the house neat and orderly. Not so much because he desired order, for Brine believed chaos to be the way of the world, but because he did not wish to make life difficult for his cleaning lady, who came in once a week to dust and shovel ashes from the fireplaces. He also wished to avoid acquiring the reputation of being a slob, for he knew people's propensity for judging a man on one aspect of his character, and even Augustus Brine was not above some degree of vanity.

Despite his belief that the pursuit of order in a chaotic universe was futile, Brine lived a very ordered life, and this paradox, upon reflection, amused him. He rose each day at five, indulged himself in a half-hour-long shower, dressed, and ate the same breakfast of six eggs and half a loaf of sourdough toast, heavily buttered. (Cholesterol seemed too silent and sneaky to be dangerous, and Brine had decided long ago that until cholesterol gathered its forces and charged him headlong across the plate with Light Brigade abandon, he would ignore it.)

After breakfast, Brine lit his meerschaum pipe for the first time of the day, crawled onto his truck, and drove downtown to open his store.

For the first two hours he puffed around the store like a great white-bearded locomotive, making coffee, selling pastries, trading idle banter with the old men who greeted him each morning, and preparing the store to run under full steam until midnight, under the supervision of a handful of clerks. At eight o'clock the first of Brine's employees arrived to man the register while Brine busied himself ordering what he called Epicurean necessities: pastries, imported cheeses and beers, pipe tobacco and cigarettes, homemade pasta and sauces, freshly baked bread, gourmet coffees, and California wines. Brine believed, like Epicurus, that a good life was one dedicated to the pursuit of simple pleasures, tempered with justice and prudence. Years ago, while working as a bouncer in a whorehouse, Brine had repeatedly seen depressed, angry men turned to gentleness and gaiety by a few moments of pleasure. He had vowed then to someday open a brothel, but when the ramshackle general store with its two gas pumps had been put up for sale, Brine had compromised his dream by buying it and bringing pleasure of a different sort to the public. From time to time, however, a needling suspicion arose in his mind that he had missed his true calling as a madam.

Each day when the orders were finished, Brine selected a bottle of red wine from his shelves, packed it in a basket with some bread, cheese, and bait, and took off for the beach. He passed the rest of the day sitting on the beach in a canvas director's chair sipping wine and smoking his pipe, waiting for the long surf-casting rod to bend with a strike.

On most days Brine let his mind go as clear as water. Without worry or thought he became one with everything around him, neither conscious nor unconscious: the state of Zen mushin, or no-mind. He had come to Zen after the fact, recognizing in the writings of Suzuki and Watts an attitude he had come to without discipline, by simply sitting on the beach staring into an empty sky and becoming just as empty. Zen was his religion, and it brought him peace and humor.

On this particular morning Brine was having a difficult time clearing his mind. The visit of the little Arab man to the store vexed him. Brine did not speak Arabic, yet he had understood every word the little man had said. He had seen the air cut with swirling blue curses, and he had seen the Arab's eyes glow white with anger.

He smoked his pipe, the meerschaum mermaid carved so that Brine's index finger fell across her breasts, and tried to apply some meaning to a situation that was outside the context of his reality. He knew that if he were to accept the fluid of this experience, the cup of his mind had to be empty. But right now he had a better chance of buying bread with moonlight than reaching a Zen calm. It vexed him.

"It is a mystery, is it not?" someone said.

Startled, Brine looked around. The little Arab man stood about three feet from Brine's side, drinking from a large styrofoam cup. His red stocking cap was glistening, damp with the morning spray.

"I'm sorry," Brine said. "I didn't see you come up."

"It is a mystery, is it not? How this dashing figure seems to appear out of nowhere? You must be awestruck. Paralyzed with fear perhaps?"

Brine looked at the withered little man in the rumpled flannel suit and silly red hat. "Very close to paralyzed," he said. "I am Augustus Brine." He extended his hand to the little man.

"Are you not afraid that by touching me you will burst into flames?"

"Is that a danger?"

"No, but you know how superstitious fishermen are. Perhaps you believe that you will be transformed into a toad. You hide your fear well, Augustus Brine."

Brine smiled. He was baffled and amused; it didn't occur to him to be afraid.

The Arab drained his cup and dipped it into the surf to refill it.

"Please call me Gus," Brine said, his hand still extended. "And you are?"

The Arab drained his cup again, then took Brine's hand. His skin had the feel of parchment.

"I am Gian Hen Gian, King of the Djinn, Ruler of the Netherworld. Do not tremble, I wish you no harm."

"I am not trembling," Brine said. "You might go easy on that seawater  –  it works hell on your blood pressure."

"Do not fall to your knees; there is no need to prostrate yourself before my greatness. I am here in your service."

"Thank you. I am honored," Brine said. Despite the strange happenings in the store, he was having a hard time taking this pompous little man seriously. The Arab was obviously a nuthouse Napoleon. He'd seen hundreds of them, living in cardboard castles and feasting from dumpsters all over America. But this one had some credentials: he could curse in blue swirls.

"It is good that you are not afraid, Augustus Brine. Terrible evil is at hand. You will have to call upon your courage. It is a good sign that you have kept your wits in the presence of the great Gian Hen Gian. The grandeur is sometimes too much for weaker men."

"May I offer you some wine?" Brine extended the bottle of cabernet he had brought from the store.

"No, I have a great thirst for this." He sloshed the cup of seawater. "From a time when it was all I could drink."

"As you wish." Brine sipped from the bottle.

"There is little time, Augustus Brine, and what I am to tell you may overwhelm your tiny mind. Please prepare yourself."

"My tiny mind is steeled for anything, O King. But first, tell me, did I see you curse blue swirls this morning?"

"A minor loss of temper. Nothing really. Would you have had me turn the clumsy dolt into a snake who forever gnaws his own tail?"

"No, the cursing was fine. Although in Vance's case the snake might be an improvement. Your curses were in Arabic, though, right?"

"A language I prefer for its music."

"But I don't speak Arabic. Yet I understood you. You did say, 'May the IRS find that you deduct your pet sheep as an entertainment expense,' didn't you?"

"I can be most colorful and inventive when I am angry." The Arab flashed a bright grin of pride. His teeth were pointed and saw-edged like a shark's. "You have been chosen, Augustus Brine."

"Why me?" Somehow Brine had suspended his disbelief and denied the absurdity of the situation. If there was no order in the universe, then why should it be out of order to be sitting on the beach talking to an Arab dwarf who claimed to be king of the Djinn, whatever the hell that was? Strangely enough, Brine took comfort in the fact that this experience was invalidating every assumption he had ever made about the nature of the world. He had tapped into the Zen of ignorance, the enlightenment of absurdity.

Gian Hen Gian laughed. "I have chosen you because you are a fisherman who catches no fish. I have had an affinity for such men since I was fished from the sea a thousand years ago and released from Solomon's jar. One gets ever so cramped passing the centuries inside a jar."

"And ever so wrinkled, it would seem," Brine said.

Gian Hen Gian ignored Brine's comment. "I found you here, Augustus Brine, listening to the noise of the universe, holding in your heart a spark of hope, like all fishermen, but resolved to be disappointed. You have no love, no faith, and no purpose. You shall be my instrument, and in return, you shall gain the things you lack."

Brine wanted to protest the Arab's judgment, but he realized that it was true. He'd been enlightened for exactly thirty seconds and already he was back on the path of desire and karma. Postenlightenment depression, he thought.

6

THE DJINN'S STORY

Brine said, "Excuse me, O King, but what exactly is a Djinn?"

Gian Hen Gian spit into the surf and cursed, but this time Brine did not understand the language and no blue swirls cut the air.

"I am Djinn. The Djinn were the first people. This was our world long before the first human. Have you not read the tales of Scheherazade?"

"I thought those were just stories."

"By Aladdin's lamplit scrotum, man! Everything is a story. What is there but stories? Stories are the only truth. The Djinn knew this. We had power over our own stories. We shaped our world as we wished it to be. It was our glory. We were created by Jehovah as a race of creators, and he became jealous of us.

"He sent Satan and an army of angels against us. We were banished to the netherworld, where we could not make our stories. Then he created a race who could not create and so would stand in awe of the Creator."

"Man?" Brine asked.

The Djinn nodded. "When Satan drove us into the netherworld, he saw our power. He saw that he was no more than a servant, while Jehovah had given the Djinn the power of gods. He returned to Jehovah demanding the same power. He proclaimed that he and his army would not serve until they were given the power to create.

"Jehovah was sorely angered. He banished Satan to hell, where the angel might have the power he wished, but only over his own army of rebels. To further humiliate Satan, Jehovah created a new race of beings and gave them control over their own destinies, made them masters of their own world. And he made Satan watch it all from hell.

"These beings were parodies of the angels, resembling them physically, but with none of the angels' grace or intelligence. And because he had made two mistakes before, Jehovah made these creatures mortal to keep them humble."

"Are you saying," Brine interrupted, "that the human race was created to irritate Satan?"

"That is correct. Jehovah is infinite in his snottiness."

Brine reflected on this for a moment and regretted that he had not become a criminal at an early age. "And what happened to the Djinn?"

"We were left without form, purpose, or power. The netherworld is timeless and unchanging, and boring  –  much like a doctor's waiting room."

"But you're here, you're not in the netherworld."

"Be patient, Augustus Brine. I will tell you how I came here. You see, many years passed on Earth and we remained undisturbed. Then was born Solomon the thief."

"You mean King Solomon? Son of David?"

"The thief!" The Djinn spat. "He asked for wisdom from Jehovah that he might build a great temple. To assist him, Jehovah gave him a great silver seal, which he carried in a scepter, and the power to call the Djinn from the netherworld to act as slaves. Solomon was given power over the Djinn on Earth that by all rights belonged to me. And as if that was not enough, the seal also gave him the power to call up the deposed angels from hell. Satan was furious that such power be given to a mortal, which, of course, was Jehovah's plan.

"Solomon called first upon me to help him build his temple. He spread the temple plans before me and I laughed in his face. It was little more than a shack of stone. His imagination was as limited as his intelligence. Nevertheless, I began work on his temple, building it stone by stone as he instructed. I could have built it in an instant had he commanded it, but the thief could only imagine a temple being built as it might be built by men.

"I worked slowly, for even under the reign of the thief, my time on Earth was better than the emptiness of the netherworld. After some time I convinced Solomon that I needed help, and I was given slaves to assist me in the construction. Work slowed even more, for while some of them worked, most stood by and chatted about their dreams of freedom. I have seen that such methods are used today in building your highways."

"It's standard," Brine said.

"Solomon grew impatient with my progress and called from hell one of the deposed angels, a warrior Seraph named Catch. Thus did his troubles begin.

"Catch had once been a tall and beautiful angel, but his time in hell, steeping in his own bitterness, had changed him. When he appeared before Solomon, he was a squat monster, no bigger than a dwarf. His skin was like that of a snake, his eyes like those of a cat. He was so hideous that Solomon would not allow him to be seen by the people of Jerusalem, so he made the demon invisible to all but himself.

"Catch carried in his heart a loathing for humans as deep as Satan himself. I had no quarrel with the race of man. Catch, however, wanted revenge. Fortunately, he did not have the powers of a Djinn.

"Solomon told the slaves who worked on the temple that they were being given divine assistance and that they should behave as if nothing was out of the ordinary, so the people of Jerusalem might not notice the demon's presence. The demon threw himself into the construction, honing huge blocks of stone and hauling them into place.

"Solomon was pleased with the demon's work and told him so. Catch said that the work would go faster if he didn't have to work with a Djinn, so I stood by and watched as the temple rose. From time to time great stones dropped from the walls, crushing the slaves below. While the blood ran, I could hear Catch laughing and shouting 'Whoops' from the top of the wall.

"Solomon believed these killings to be accidents, but I knew them to be murder. It was then that I realized that Solomon's control over the demon was not absolute, and therefore, his control over me must have its limits as well. My first impulse was to try to escape, but if I were wrong, I knew that I would be sent back to the netherworld and all would be lost. Perhaps I could persuade Solomon to set me free by offering him something he could attain only through my power to create.

"Solomon's appetite for women was infamous. I offered to bring him the most beautiful woman he had ever seen if he would allow me to remain on Earth. He agreed.

"I retreated to my quarters and contemplated what sort of woman might most please the idiot king. I had seen his thousand wives and found no common thread among their charms that revealed Solomon's preferences. In the end I was left to my own creativity.

"I gave her fair hair and blue eyes and skin as white and smooth as marble. She was all things that men wish of women in body and mind. She was a virgin with a courtesan's knowledge in the ways of pleasure. She was kind, intelligent, forgiving, and warm with humor.

"Solomon fell in love with the woman as soon as I presented her to him. 'She shines like a jewel', he said. 'Jewel shall be her name.' He spent an hour or more just staring at her, captivated with her beauty. When finally his senses returned, he said, 'We will talk later of your reward, Gian Hen Gian.' Then he took Jewel by the hand and led her to his bedchamber.

"I felt a strength return to me the moment I presented Jewel to the king. I was not free to escape, but for the first time I was able to leave the city without being compelled by some invisible bond to return to Solomon. I went into the desert and spent the night enjoying the freedom I had gained. It was not until I returned the next morning that I realized that Solomon's control over me and the demon depended upon the concentration of his will, as well as the invocations and the seal given to him by Jehovah. The woman, Jewel, had broken his will.

"I found Solomon in his palace weeping one moment, then screaming with rage the next. While I had been away Catch had come to Solomon's bedchamber, not in the form that Solomon recognized, but in the form of a huge monster, taller than two men and as wide as a team of horses, and the slaves could see him as well. While Solomon watched in horror, the demon snatched Jewel from the bed with a single, talonlike hand and bit her head off. Then the monster swallowed the girl's body and reached for Solomon. But some force protected the king, and Solomon commanded the demon to return to his smaller form. Catch laughed in his face and skulked off to the wives' quarters.

"Through the night the palace was filled with the screams of terrified women. Solomon ordered his guards to attack the demon. Catch swatted them away as if they were flies. By dawn the palace was littered with the crushed bodies of the guards. Of Solomon's thousand wives only two hundred remained alive. Catch was gone.

"During the attack Solomon had called upon the power of the seal and prayed to Jehovah to stop the demon. But the king's will was broken, and so it did no good.

"I sensed then that I might escape Solomon's control altogether, and live free, but even the idiot king would eventually make the connection and my fate would lie in the netherworld.

"I bade Solomon allow me to bring Catch to justice. I knew my power to be much greater than the demon's. But Solomon had only the building of the temple by which to judge my powers, and in that example the demon appeared superior. 'Do what you can,' he said. 'If you capture the demon, you may remain on Earth.'

"I found Catch in the great desert, wantonly slaughtering tribes of nomads. When I bound him with my magic, he protested that he had planned to return, for he was enslaved to Solomon by the invocation and could never really escape. He was only having a little sport with the humans, he said. To quiet him, I filled his mouth with sand for the journey back to Jerusalem.

"When I brought Catch to Solomon, the king commanded me to devise a punishment to torment the demon, so that the people of Jerusalem might watch him suffer. I chained Catch to a giant stone outside the palace, then I created a huge bird of prey that swooped on the demon and tore at his liver, which grew back at once, for like the Djinn, the demon was immortal.

"Solomon was pleased with my work. During my absence he had regained his senses somewhat, and thereby his will. I stood before the king awaiting my reward, feeling my powers wane as Solomon's will returned.

"'I have promised that you shall never be returned to the netherworld, and you shall not,' he said. 'But this demon has put me off of immortals more than somewhat, and I do not wish that you be allowed to roam free. You shall be imprisoned in a jar and cast into the sea. Should the time come when you are set free to walk the Earth again, you shall have no power over the realm of man except as is commanded by my will, which shall be from now to the end of time the goodwill of all men. By this you shall be bound.'

"He had a jar fashioned from lead and marked it on all sides with a silver seal. Before he imprisoned me, Solomon promised that Catch would remain chained to the rock until his screams burned into the king's soul  –  so that Solomon might never lose his will or his wisdom again. He said he would then send the demon back to hell and destroy the tablets with the invocations, as well as the great seal. He swore these things to me, as if he believed the fate of the demon meant something to me. I didn't give a camel's fart about Catch. Then he gave me a last command and sealed the jar. His soldiers cast the jar into the Red Sea.

"For two thousand years I languished inside the jar, my only comfort a trickle of seawater that seeped in, which I drank with relish, for it tasted of freedom.

"When the jar was finally pulled from the sea by a fisherman, and I was released, I cared nothing about Solomon or Catch, only about my freedom. I have lived as a man would live these last thousand years, bound by Solomon's will. Of this Solomon spoke truly, but about the demon, he lied."

The little man paused and refilled his cup in the ocean. Augustus Brine was at a loss. It couldn't possibly be true. There was nothing to corroborate the story.

"Begging your pardon, Gian Hen Gian, but why is none of this told in the Bible?"

"Editing," the Djinn said.

"But aren't you confusing Greek myth with Christian myth? The birds eating the demon's liver sounds an awful lot like the story of Prometheus."

"It was my idea. The Greeks were thieves, no better than Solomon."

Brine considered this for a moment. He was seeing evidence of the supernatural, wasn't he? Wasn't this little Arab drinking seawater as he watched, with no apparent ill effects? And even if some of it could be explained by hallucination, he was pretty sure that he hadn't been the only one to see the strange blue swirls in the store this morning. What if for a moment  –  just a moment  –  he took the Arab's outrageous story for the truth?…

"If this is true, then how do you know, after all this time, that Solomon lied to you? And why tell me about it?"

"Because, Augustus Brine, I knew you would believe. And I know Solomon lied because I can feel the presence of the demon, Catch. And I'm sure that he has come to Pine Cove."

"Swell," Brine said.

7

ARRIVAL

Virgil Long backed out from under the hood of the Impala, wiped his hands on his coveralls, and scratched at his four-day growth of beard. He reminded Travis of a fat weasel with the mange.

"So you're thinking it's the radiator?" Virgil asked.

"It's the radiator," Travis said.

"It might be the whole engine is gone. You were running pretty quiet when you drove in. Not a good sign. Do you have a charge card?"

Virgil was unprecedented in his inability to diagnose specific engine problems. When he was dealing with tourists, his strategy was usually to start replacing things and keep replacing them until he solved the problem or reached the limit on the customer's credit card, whichever came first.

"It wasn't running at all when I came in," Travis protested. "And I don't have a credit card. It's the radiator, I promise."

"Now, son," Virgil drawled, "I know you think you know what you're talking about, but I got a certificate from the Ford factory there on the wall that says I'm a master mechanic." Virgil pointed a fat finger toward the service station's office. One wall was covered with framed certificates along with a poster of a nude woman sitting on the hood of a Corvette buffing her private parts with a scarf in order to sell motor oil. Virgil had purchased the Master Mechanic certificates from an outfit in New Hampshire: two for five dollars, six for ten dollars, fifteen for twenty. He had gone for the twenty-dollar package. Those who took the time to read the certificates were somewhat surprised to find out that Pine Cove's only service station and car wash had its own factory-certified snowmobile mechanic. It had never snowed in Pine Cove.

"This is a Chevy," Travis said.

"Got a certificate for those, too. You probably need new rings. The radiator's just a symptom, like these broken headlights. You treat the symptom, the disease just gets worse." Virgil had heard that on a doctor show once and liked the sound of it.

"What will it cost to just fix the radiator?"

Virgil stared deep into the grease spots on the garage floor, as if by reading their patterns and by some mystic mode of divination, petrolmancy perhaps, he would arrive at a price that would not alienate the dark young man but would still assure him an exorbitant hourly rate for his labor.

"Hundred bucks." It had a nice round ring to it.

"Fine," Travis said, "Fix it. When can I have it back?"

Virgil consulted the grease spots again, then emerged with a good-ol'-boy smile. "How's noon sound?"

"Fine," Travis said. "Is there a pool hall around here  –  and someplace I can get some breakfast?"

"No pool hall. The Head of the Slug is open down the street. They got a couple of tables."

"And breakfast?"

"Only thing open this end of town is H.P.'s, a block off Cypress, down from the Slug. But it's a local's joint."

"Is there a problem getting served?"

"No. The menu might throw you for a bit. It  –  well, you'll see."

Travis thanked the mechanic and started off in the direction of H.P.'s, the demon skulking along behind him. As they passed the self-serve car-wash stalls, Travis noticed a tall man of about thirty unloading plastic laundry baskets full of dirty dishes from the bed of an old Ford pickup. He seemed to be having trouble getting quarters to go into the coin box.

Looking at him, Travis said: "You know, Catch, I'll bet there's a lot of incest in this town."

"Probably the only entertainment," the demon agreed.

The man in the car wash had activated the high-pressure nozzle and was sweeping it back and forth across the baskets of dishes. With each sweep he repeated, "Nobody lives like this. Nobody."

Some of the overspray caught on the wind and settled over Travis and Catch. For a moment the demon became visible in the spray. "I'm melt-ing," Catch whined in perfect Wicked Witch of the West pitch.

"Let's go," Travis said, moving quickly to avoid more spray. "We need a hundred bucks before noon."

JENNY

In the two hours since Jenny Masterson had arrived at the cafe she had managed to drop a tray full of glasses, mix up the orders on three tables, fill the saltshakers with sugar and the sugar dispensers with salt, and pour hot coffee on the hands of two customers who had covered their cups to indicate that they'd had enough  –  a patently stupid gesture on their part, she thought. The worst of it was not that she normally performed her duties flawlessly, which she did. The worst of it was that everyone was so damned understanding about it.

"You're going through a rough time, honey, it's okay."

"Divorce is always hard."

Their consolations ranged from "too bad you couldn't work it out" to "he was a worthless drunk anyway, you're better off without him."

She'd been separated from Robert exactly four days and everybody in Pine Cove knew about it. And they couldn't just let it lie. Why didn't they let her go through the process without running this cloying gauntlet of sympathy? It was as if she had a big red D sewed to her clothing, a signal to the townsfolk to close around her like a hungry amoeba.

When the second tray of glasses hit the floor, she stood amid the shards trying to catch her breath and could not. She had to do something  –  scream, cry, pass out  –  but she just stood there, paralyzed, while the busboy cleaned up the glass.

Two bony hands closed on her shoulders. She heard a voice in her ear that seemed to come from very far away. "You are having an anxiety attack, dear. It shall pass. Relax and breathe deeply." She felt the hands gently leading her through the kitchen door to the office in the back.

"Sit down and put your head between your knees." She let herself be guided into a chair. Her mind went white, and her breath caught in her throat. A bony hand rubbed her back.

"Breathe, Jennifer. I'll not have you shuffling off this mortal coil in the middle of the breakfast shift."

In a moment her head cleared and she looked up to see Howard Phillips, the owner of H.P.'s, standing over her.

He was a tall, skeletal man, who always wore a black suit and button shoes that had been fashionable a hundred years ago. Except for the dark depressions on his cheeks, Howard's skin was as white as a carrion worm. Robert had once said that H.P. looked like the master of ceremonies at a chemotherapy funfest.

Howard had been born and raised in Maine, yet when he spoke, he affected the accent of an erudite Londoner. "The prospect of change is a many-fanged beast, my dear. It is not, however, appropriate to pay fearful obeisance to that beast by cowering in the ruins of my stemware while you have orders up."

"I'm sorry, Howard. Robert called this morning. He sounded so helpless, pathetic."

"A tragedy, to be sure. Yet as we sit, ensconced in our grief, two perfectly healthy daily specials languish under the heat lamps metamorphosing into gelatinous invitations to botulism."

Jenny was relieved that in his own, cryptically charming way, Howard was not giving her sympathy but telling her to get off her ass and live her life. "I think I'm okay now. Thanks, Howard." Jenny stood and wiped her eyes with a paper napkin she took from her apron. Then she went off to deliver her orders. Howard, having exhausted his compassion for the day, closed the door of his office and began working on the books.

When Jenny returned to the floor, she found that the restaurant had cleared except for a few regular customers and a dark young man she didn't recognize, who was standing by the PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEATED sign. At least he wouldn't ask about Robert, thank God. It was a welcome relief.

Not many tourists found H.P.'s. It was tucked in a tree-lined cul-de-sac off Cypress Street in a remodeled Victorian bungalow. The sign outside, small and tasteful, simply read, CAFE. Howard did not believe in advertising, and though he was an Anglophile at heart  –  loving all things British and feeling that they were somehow superior to their American counterparts  –  his restaurant displayed none of the ersatz British decor that might draw in the tourists. The cafe served simple food at fair prices. If the menu exhibited Howard Phillips's eccentricity in style, it did not discourage the locals from eating at his place. Next to Brine's Bait, Tackle, and Fine Wines, H.P.'s Cafe had the most loyal clientele in Pine Cove.

"Smoking or nonsmoking?" Jenny asked the young man. He was very good-looking, but Jenny noticed this only in passing. She was conditioned by years of monogamy not to dwell on such things.

"Nonsmoking," he said.

Jenny led him to a table in the back. Before he sat down, he pulled out the chair across from him, as if he were going to put his feet up.

"Will someone be joining you?" Jenny asked, handing him a menu. He looked up at her as if he were seeing her for the first time. He stared into her eyes without saying a word.

Embarrassed, Jenny looked down. "Today's special is Eggs-Sothoth  –  a fiendishly toothsome amalgamation of scrumptious ingredients so delicious that the mere description of the palatable gestalt could drive one mad," she said.

"You're joking?"

"No. The owner insists that we memorize the daily specials verbatim."

The dark man kept staring at her. "What does all that mean?" he asked.

"Scrambled eggs with ham and cheese and a side of toast."

"Why didn't you just say that?"

"The owner is a little eccentric. He believes that his daily specials may be the only thing keeping the Old Ones at bay."

"The Old Ones?"

Jenny sighed. The nice thing about regular customers is she didn't have to keep explaining Howard's weird menu to them. This guy was obviously from out of town. But why did he have to keep staring at her like that?

"It's his religion or something. He believes that the world was once populated by another race. He calls them the Old Ones. For some reason they were banished from Earth, but he believes that they are trying to return and take over."

"You're joking?"

"Stop saying that. I'm not joking."

"I'm sorry." He looked at the menu. "Okay, give me an Eggs-Sothoth with a side order of The Spuds of Madness."

"Would you like coffee?"

"That would be great."

Jenny wrote out the ticket and turned to put the order in at the kitchen window.

"Excuse me," the man said.

Jenny turned in midstep. "Yes?"

"You have incredible eyes."

"Thanks." She felt herself blush as she headed off to get his coffee. She wasn't ready for this. She needed some sort of break between being married and being divorced. Divorce leave? They had pregnancy leave, didn't they?

When she returned with his coffee, she looked at him for the first time as a single woman might. He was handsome, in a sharp, dark sort of way. He looked younger than she was, twenty-three, maybe twenty-four. She was studying his clothes and trying to get a feel for what he did for a living when she ran into the chair he had pushed out from the table and spilled most of the coffee into the saucer.

"God, I'm sorry."

"It's okay," he said. "Are you having a bad day?"

"Getting worse by the minute. I'll get you another cup."

"No," he raised a hand in protest. "Its fine." He took the cup and saucer from her, separated them, and poured the coffee back into the cup. "See, good as new. I don't want to add to your bad day."

He was staring again.

"No, you're fine. I mean, I'm fine. Thanks." She felt like a geek. She cursed Robert for causing all this. If he hadn't… No, it wasn't Robert's fault. She'd made the decision to end the marriage.

"I'm Travis." The man extended his hand. She took it, tentatively.

"Jennifer-" She was about to tell him that she was married and that he was nice and all. "I'm not married," she said. She immediately wanted to disappear into the kitchen and never come back.

"Me either," Travis said. "I'm new in town." He didn't seem to notice how awkward she was. "Look, Jennifer, I'm looking for an address and I wonder if you could tell me how to find it? Do you know how to get to Cheshire Street?"

Jenny was relieved to be talking about anything but herself. She rattled off a series of streets and turns, landmarks and signs, that would lead Travis to Cheshire Street. When she finished, he just looked at her quizzically.

"I'll draw you a map," she said. She took a pen from her apron, bent over the table, and began drawing on a napkin.

Their faces were inches apart. "You're very beautiful," he said.

She looked at him. She didn't know whether to smile or scream. Not yet, she thought. I'm not ready.

He didn't wait for her to respond. "You remind me of someone I used to know."

"Thank you…" She tried to remember his name. "…Travis."

"Have dinner with me tonight?"

She searched for an excuse. None came. She couldn't use the one she had used for a decade  –  it wasn't true anymore. And she hadn't been alone long enough to brush up on some new lies. In fact, she felt that she was somehow being unfaithful to Robert just by talking to this guy. But she was a single woman. Finally she wrote her phone number under the map on the napkin and handed it to him.

"My number's on the bottom. Why don't you call me tonight, around five, and we'll take it from there, okay?"

Travis folded the napkin and put it in his shirt pocket. "Until tonight," he said.

"Oh, spare me!" a gravely voice said. Jenny turned toward the voice, but there was only the empty chair.

To Travis she said, "Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?" Travis glared at the empty chair.

"Nothing," Jenny said, "I'm starting to go over the edge, I think."

"Relax," Travis said. "I won't bite you." He shot a glance at the chair.

"Your order is up. I'll be right back."

She retrieved the food from the window and delivered it to Travis. While he ate, she stood behind the counter separating coffee filters for the lunch shift, occasionally looking up and smiling at the dark, young man, who paused between bites and smiled back.

She was fine, just fine. She was a single woman and could do any damned thing she wanted to. She could go out with anyone she wanted to. She was young and attractive and she had just made her first date in ten years  –  sort of.

Over all of her affirmations her fears flew up and perched like a murder of crows. It occurred to her that she didn't have the slightest idea what she was going to wear. The freedom of single life had suddenly become a burden, a mixed blessing, herpes on the pope's ring. Maybe she wouldn't answer the phone when he called.

Travis finished eating and paid his bill, leaving her far too large a tip.

"See you tonight," he said.

"You bet." She smiled.

She watched him walk across the parking lot. He seemed to be talking to someone as he walked. Probably just singing. Guys did that right after they made a date, didn't they? Maybe he was just a whacko?

For the hundredth time that morning she resisted the urge to call Robert and tell him to come home.