When Jennifer arrived home from work, the phone was ringing. She ran to the phone, then stopped with her hand on the receiver, checked her watch, and decided to let the answering machine get it. It was too early to be Travis.
The machine clicked and began its message, Jennifer cringed as she heard Robert's voice on the answer tape. "You've reached the studios of Photography in the Pines. Please leave your name and number at the tone."
The machine beeped and Robert's voice continued, "Honey, pick up if you're there. I'm so sorry. I need to come home. I don't have any clean underwear. Are you there? Pick up, Jenny. I'm so lonely. Call me, okay? I'm still at The Breeze's. When you get in-"
The machine cut him off.
Jennifer ran the tape back and listened to the other messages. There were nine others, all from Robert. All whining, drunken, pleading for forgiveness, promising changes that would never happen.
Jenny reset the machine. On the message pad next to the phone she wrote, "Change message on machine." There was a list of notes to herself: clean beer out of refrigerator; pack up darkroom; separate records, tapes, books. All were designed to wash reminders of Robert out of her life. Right now, though, she needed to wash the residue of eight hours of restaurant work off her body. Robert used to grab her and kiss her as she came in the door. "The smell of grease drives me mad," he'd say.
Jenny went to the bathroom to run her bath. She opened various bottles and poured them into the water: Essential Algae, revitalizes the skin, all natural. "It's from France," the clerk had said with import, as if the French had mastered the secret of bathwater along with the elements of rudeness; a dash of Amino Extract, all vegetable protein in an absorbable form. "Makes stretch marks as smooth as if you'd spackled them," the clerk had said. He'd been a drywall man moonlighting at the cosmetic counter and was not yet versed in the nomenclature of beauty. Two capfuls of Herbal Honesty, a fragrant mix of organically grown herbs harvested by the loving hands of spiritually enlightened descendants of the Mayans. And last, a squeeze of Female E, vitamin E oil and dong quai root extract, to bring out the Goddess in every woman. Rachel had given her the Female E at the last meeting of the Pagan Vegetarians for Peace when Jenny had consulted the group about divorcing Robert. "You're just a little yanged out," Rachel had said. "Try some of this."
When Jenny finished adding all the ingredients, the water was the soft, translucent green of cheese mold. It would have come as a great surprise to Jennifer that two hundred miles north, in the laboratories of the Stanford Primordial Slime Research Building, some graduate students were combining the very same ingredients (albeit under scientific names) in a climate-controlled vat, in an attempt to replicate the original conditions in which life had first evolved on Earth. It would have further surprised her that if she had turned on a sunlamp in the bathroom (the last element needed), her bath water would have stood up and said "Howdy," immediately qualifying her for the Nobel prize and millions in grant money.
While Jennifer's chance at scientific immortality bubbled away in the tub, she counted her tips, forty-seven dollars and thirty-two cents' worth of change and dollar bills, into a gallon jar, then marked the total into a logbook on her dresser. It wasn't much, but it was enough. Her tips and wages provided enough to make the house payment, pay utilities, buy food, and keep her Toyota and Robert's truck in marginal running order. She made enough to keep alive Robert's illusion that he was making it as a professional photographer. What little he made on the occasional wedding or senior portrait went into film and equipment, or, for the most part, wine. Robert seemed to think that the key to his creativity was a corkscrew.
Keeping Robert's photography business buoyant was Jennifer's rationalization for putting her own life on hold and wasting her time working as a waitress. It seemed that she had always been on hold, waiting for her life to start. In school they told her if she worked hard and got good grades, she would get into a good college. Hold, please. Then there had been Robert. Work hard, be patient, the photography will take off, and we'll have a life. She'd hitched herself to that dream and put her life on hold once again. And she had kept pumping energy into the dream long after it had died in Robert.
It happened one morning after Robert had been up drinking all night. She had found him in front of the television with empty wine bottles lined up in front of him like tombstones.
"Don't you have a wedding to shoot today?"
"I'm not going to do it. I don't feel up to it."
She had gone over the edge, screaming at him, kicking wine bottles around the room, and finally, storming out. Right then she resolved to start her life. She was almost thirty and she'd be damned if she'd spend the rest of her life as the grieving widow of someone else's dream.
She asked him to leave that afternoon, then called a lawyer.
Now that her life had finally started, she had no idea what she was going to do. Slipping into the tub, she realized she was, in fact, nothing more than a waitress and a wife.
Once again she fought the urge to call Robert and ask him to come home. Not because she loved him – the love had worn so thin it was hard to perceive – but because he was her purpose, her direction, and most important, her excuse for being mediocre.
Sitting in the safety of her bathroom, she found she was afraid. This morning, Pine Cove had seemed like a sweatbox, closing in on her and cutting off her breath. Now Pine Cove and the world seemed a very large and hostile place. It would be easy to slip under the warm water and never come up, escape. It wasn't a serious consideration, just a momentary fantasy. She was stronger than that. Things weren't hopeless, just difficult. Concentrate on the positive, she told herself.
There was this guy Travis. He seemed nice. He was very good-looking, too. Everything is fine. This is not an end, it's a beginning.
Her paltry attempt at positive thinking suddenly dissolved into a whole agenda of first-date fears, which somehow seemed more comfortable than the limitless possibilities of positive thinking because she had been through them before.
She took a bar of deodorant soap from the soap dish, lost her grip, and dropped it into the water. The splash covered the faint death gasp the water let out as the soap's toxic chemicals hit it.
Millions of spiritual creatures walk the Earth.
Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep.
– John Milton
Overall, the village of Pine Cove was in a cranky mood. No one had slept well Saturday night. Through most of Sunday the weekend tourists were finding ugly chips in Pine Cove's veneer of small-town charm.
Shopkeepers had been abrupt and sarcastic when asked the usual inane questions about whales and sea otters. Waiters and waitresses lost their tolerance for complaints about the unpalatable English food they served and either snapped at their customers outright, or intentionally gave them bad service. Motel desk clerks indulged themselves by arbitrarily changing check-out times, refusing reservations, and turning on the NO VACANCY signs every time someone pulled up to the office, proclaiming that they had just filled their last room.
Rosa Cruz, who was a chambermaid at the Rooms-R-Us Motel, slipped "sanitized for your protection" bands across all the toilets without even lifting the lids. That afternoon, when a guest protested and she was called on the carpet by the manager, who stood over the toilet in room 103, pointing to a floating turd as if it were a smoking murder weapon, Rosa said, "Well, I sanitized that, too."
It might have been declared Tourist Abuse Day in Pine Cove for all the injustices that were inflicted on unsuspecting travelers. As far as the locals were concerned, the world would be a better place if every tourist decided to hang bug-eyed and blue-tongued by his camera strap from a motel shower rod.
As the day wore into evening and the tourists vacated the streets, the residents of Pine Cove turned to each other to vent their irritability. At the Slug, Mavis Sand, who was stocking her bar for the evening, and who was a keen observer of social behavior, had watched the tension grow in her customers and herself all afternoon.
She must have told the story of Slick McCall's eight-ball match with the dark stranger thirty times. Mavis usually enjoyed the telling and retelling of the events that occurred in The Head of the Slug (even to the point of keeping a microcassette recorder under the bar to save some of her better versions). She allowed the tales to grow into myths and legends as she replaced truths forgotten with details fabricated. Often a tale that started out as a one-beer anecdote would become, in the retelling, a three-beer epic (for Mavis let no glass go dry when she was telling a story). Storytelling, for Mavis, was just good business.
But today people had been impatient. They wanted Mavis to draw a beer and get to the point. They questioned her credibility, denied the facts, and all but called her a liar. The story was too fantastic to be taken at face value.
Mavis lost her patience with those who asked about the incident, and they did ask. News travels fast in a small town.
"If you don't want to know what happened, don't ask," Mavis snapped.
What did they expect? Slick McCall was an institution, a hero, in his own greasy way. The story of his defeat should be an epic, not an obituary.
Even that good-looking fellow who owned the general store had rushed her through the story. What was his name, Asbestos Wine? No, Augustus Brine. That was it. Now, there was a man she could spend some time under. But he, too, had been impatient, and had rushed out of the bar without even buying a drink. It had pissed her off.
Mavis watched her own mood changes like the needle on a barometer. Given her current crankiness, the social climate in the Slug tonight would be stormy; she predicted fights. The liquor she stocked into the well that evening was diluted to half strength with distilled water. If people were going to get drunk and break up her place, it was going to cost them.
In her heart of hearts, she hoped she would get an opportunity to whack someone with her baseball bat.
As darkness fell on Pine Cove that evening, Augustus Brine was filled with an uncharacteristic feeling of dread. In the past he had always seen sunset as a promise, a beginning. As a young man sunset had been a call to romance and excitement, more recently it signaled a time of rest and contemplation. Tonight it was not sunset, the promise, but sundown, the threat. With nightfall the full weight of his responsibility fell across his back like a leaden yoke, and try as he might, Brine could not shrug it off.
Gian Hen Gian had convinced him that he must find the one that commanded the demon. Brine had driven to the Head of the Slug, and after enduring a barrage of lewd advances from Mavis Sand, he was able to pry out of her the direction the dark stranger had gone when he left the bar. Virgil Long, the mechanic, gave him a description of the car and tried to convince him that his truck needed a tune-up.
Brine had then returned home to discuss a course of action with the king of the Djinn, who was engrossed in his fourth Marx Brothers movie.
"But how did you know he was coming here?" Brine asked.
"It was a feeling."
"Then why can't you get a feeling of where he is now?"
"You must find him, Augustus Brine."
"And do what?"
"Get the Seal of Solomon and send Catch back to hell."
"Or get eaten."
"Yes, there is that possibility."
"Why don't you do it? He can't hurt you."
"If the dark one has the Seal of Solomon, then I too could become his slave. This would not be good. You must do it."
The biggest problem for Brine was that Pine Cove was small enough that he could actually search the entire town. In Los Angles or San Francisco he might have been able to give up before starting, open a bottle of wine, and let the mass of humanity bear the responsibility while he sank into a peaceful fog of nonaction.
Brine had come to Pine Cove to avoid conflict, to pursue a life of simple pleasures, to meditate and find peace and oneness with all things. Now, forced to act, he realized how deluded he had become. Life was action, and there was no peace this side of the grave. He had read about the kendo swordsman, who affected the Zen of controlled spontaneity, never anticipating a move so that he might never have to correct his strategy to an unanticipated attack, but always ready to act. Brine had removed himself from the flow of action, built his life into a fortress of comfort and safety without realizing that his fortress was also a prison.
"Think long and hard on your fate, Augustus Brine," the Djinn said around a mouthful of potato chips. "Your neighbors pay for this time with their lives."
Brine pushed himself out of the chair and stormed into his study. He riffled through the drawers of the desk until he found a street map of Pine Cove. He spread the map out on the desk and began to divide the village into blocks with a red marker. Gian Hen Gian came into the study while he worked.
"What will you do?"
"Find the demon," Brine said through gritted teeth.
"And when you find him?"
"I don't know."
"You are a good man, Augustus Brine."
"You are a pain in the ass, Gian Hen Gian." Brine gathered up the map and headed out of the room.
"If it be so, then so be it," the Djinn shouted after him. "But I am a grand pain in the ass."
Augustus Brine did not answer. He was already making his way to his truck. He drove off feeling quite alone and afraid.
Augustus Brine was not alone in his feeling of dread at the onset of evening. Robert returned at sunset to The Breeze's trailer to find three threatening messages on the answering machine: two from the landlord, and one ominous threat from the drug dealer in the BMW. Robert played the tape back three times in hope of finding a message from Jennifer, but it was not there.
He had failed miserably in his attempt to crash and burn at the Slug, running out of money long before passing out. The job offer from Rachel wasn't enough either. Thinking it over, nothing would really be enough. He was a loser, plain and simple. No one was going to rescue him this time, and he wasn't up to pulling himself up by his own bootstraps.
He had to see Jenny. She would understand. But he couldn't go looking like this, a three-day growth of beard, clothes he had slept in, reeking of sweat and beer. He stripped off his clothes and walked into the bathroom. He took some shaving cream and a razor from the medicine cabinet and stepped into the shower.
Maybe if he showed up looking like he had some self-respect, she would take him back. She had to be missing him, right? And he wasn't sure he could spend another night alone, thinking about it, going though the nightmare.
He turned on the shower and the breath jumped from his body. The water was ice cold. The Breeze hadn't paid the gas bill. Robert steeled himself to endure the cold shower. He had to look good if he was going to rebuild his life.
Then the lights went out.
Rivera was sitting in a coffee shop near the police station sipping from a cup of decaf, smoking a cigarette, waiting. In his fifteen years on the force he estimated that ten of them had been spent in waiting. For once, though, he had the warrants, the budget, the manpower, and probable cause, but he had no suspect.
It had to go down tomorrow, one way or another. If The Breeze showed up, then Rivera was in line for a promotion. If, however, he had gotten wind of the sting, then Rivera would take down the drunk in the trailer and hope that he knew something. It was a dismal prospect. Rivera envisioned his task force swooping in with sirens blaring, lights flashing, only to chalk up a bust for unsafe vehicle, perhaps unlawful copying of a videotape, or tearing the tag off a mattress. Rivera shivered at the thought and ground out his cigarette in the ashtray. He wondered if they would let him smoke when he was working behind the counter at Seven-Eleven.
When the jaws of the demon had clamped down on him, The Breeze felt a moment of pain, then a light-headedness and a floating feeling he had come to associate with certain kinds of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Then he looked down to see the monster stuffing his body into its gaping mouth. It looked funny, and the ethereal Breeze giggled to himself. No, this was more like the feeling of nitrous oxide than mushrooms, he thought.
He watched the monster shrink and disappear, then the door to the old Chevy opened and closed. The car sped off and The Breeze felt himself bouncing on the air currents in its wake. Death was fine with The Breeze. Sort of the ultimate acid trip, only cheaper and with no side effects.
Suddenly he found himself in a long tunnel. At the end he saw a bright light. He had seen a movie about this once; you were supposed to go toward the light.
Time had lost meaning for The Breeze. He floated down the tunnel, for a whole day, but to him it seemed only minutes. He was just riding the buzz. Everything was copacetic. As he approached the light, he could make out the figures of people waiting for him. That's right: your family and friends welcome you to the next life. The Breeze prepared himself for a truly bitchin' party on the astral plane.
Coming out of the tunnel, The Breeze was enveloped by an intense white light. It was warm and comforting. The people's faces came into view and as The Breeze floated up to them, he realized that he owed every one of them money.
While night fell on some like a curtain of foreboding, others were meeting the advent of darkness with excited anticipation. Creatures of the night were rising from their resting places and venturing forth to feed on their unsuspecting victims.
They were feeding machines, armed with tooth and claw, instinctively driven to seek out their prey, gifted with stealth and night vision, perfectly adapted to the hunt. When they stalked the streets of Pine Cove, no one's garbage cans were safe.
When they awakened that evening, they found a curious machine in their den. The supernatural sentience they had experienced the night before had passed, and they retained no memory of having stolen the tape player. They might have been frightened by the noise, but the battery had long since run down. They would push the machine out of the den when they returned, but now there was a scent on the wind that drove them to the hunt with urgent hunger. Two blocks away, Mrs. Eddleman had discarded a particularly gamey tuna-fish salad, and their acute olfactory systems had picked up the scent even while they slept.
The raccoons bounded into the night like wolves on the fold.
For Jenny, evening came as a mix of blessing and curses. The call from Travis had come at five, as promised, and she found herself elated at being wanted but also thrown into a quandary about what to wear, how to behave, and where to go. Travis had left it up to her. She was a local and knew the best places to go, he had said, and he was right. He had even asked her to drive.
As soon as she had hung up, she ran to the garage for the shop vac to clean out her car. While she cleaned, she ran possibilities through her mind. Should she pick the most expensive restaurant? No, that might scare him away. There was a romantic Italian place south of town, but what if he got the wrong idea? Pizza was too informal for a dinner date. Burgers were out of the question. She was a vegetarian. English food? No – why punish the guy?
She found herself resenting Travis for making her decide. Finally she opted for the Italian place.
When the car was clean, she returned to the house to pick out what she would wear. She dressed and undressed seven times in the next half hour and finally decided on a sleeveless black dress and heels.
She posed before the full-length mirror. The black dress definitely was the best. And if she splashed marinara sauce on it, the stain wouldn't show. She looked good. The heels showed off her calves nicely, but you could also see the light-red hair on her legs. She hadn't thought about it until now. She rummaged through her drawers, found some black panty hose and slipped them on.
That problem taken care of, she resumed her posing, affecting the bored, pouty look she had seen on fashion models in magazines. She was thin and fairly tall, and her legs were tight and muscular from waiting tables. Pretty nice for a thirty-year-old broad, she thought. Then she raised her arms and stretched languidly. Two curly tufts of armpit hair stared at her from the mirror.
It was natural, unpretentious, she thought. She had stopped shaving about the same time she had stopped eating meat. It was all part of getting in touch with herself, of getting connected to the Earth. It was a way to show that she did not conform to the female ideal created by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, that she was a natural woman. Did the Goddess shave her armpits? She did not. But the Goddess was not going out on her first date in over ten years.
Jenny suddenly realized how unaware she had become of her appearance in the last few years. Not that she had let herself go, but the changes she had made away from makeup and complicated hairstyles had been so slow she had hardly noticed. And Robert hadn't seemed to notice, or at least he had not objected. But that was the past. Robert was in the past, or he would be soon.
She went to the bathroom in search of a razor.
Billy Winston had no such dilemma about shaving. He did his legs and underarms as a matter of course every time he showered. The idea of conforming to a diet soft-drink ideal of the perfect woman didn't bother him in the least. On the contrary, Billy felt compromised by the fact that he had to maintain his appearance as a six-foot-three-inch tall man with a protruding Adam's apple in order to keep his job as night auditor at the Rooms-R-Us Motel. In his heart, Billy was a buxom blond vixen named Roxanne.
But Roxanne had to stay in the closet until Billy finished doing the motel's books, until midnight, when the rest of the staff left the motel and Billy was alone on the desk. Only then could Roxanne dance through the night on her silicon chip slippers, stroking the libidos of lonely men and breaking hearts. When the iron tongue of midnight told twelve, the sex fairy would find her on-line lovers. Until then, she was Billy Winston, and Billy Winston was getting ready to go to work.
He slipped the red silk panties and garter belt over his long, thin legs, then slowly worked the black, seamed stockings up, teasing himself in the full-length mirror at the end of the bed. He smiled coyly at himself as he clipped the garters into place. Then he put on his jeans and flannel shirt and laced up his tennis shoes. Over his shirt pocket he pinned his name badge: Billy Winston, Night Auditor.
It was a sad irony, Billy thought, that the thing he loved most, being Roxanne, depended on the thing he liked least, his job. Each evening he awoke feeling a mix of excitement and dread. Oh, well, a joint would get him through the first three hours of his shift, and Roxanne would get him through the last five.
He dreamed of the day when he could afford his own computer and become Roxanne anytime he wanted. He would quit his job and make his living like The Breeze: fast and loose. Just a few more months behind the desk and he would have the money he needed.
Catch was a demon of the twenty-seventh order. In the hierarchy of hell this put him far below the archdemons like Mammon, master of avarice, but far above the blue-collar demons like Arrrgg, who was responsible for leeching the styrofoam taste into take-out coffee.
Catch had been created as a servant and a destroyer and endowed with a simplemindedness that suited those roles. His distinction in hell was that he had spent more time on Earth than any other demon, where, in the company of men, he had learned to be devious and ambitious.
His ambition took the form of looking for a master who would allow him to indulge himself in destruction and terror. Of all the masters that Catch had served since Solomon, Travis had been the worst. Travis had an irritating streak of righteousness that grated on Catch's nerves. In the past, Catch had been called up by devious men who limited the demon's destruction only to keep his presence secret from other men. Most of the time this was accomplished by the death of all witnesses. Catch always made sure that there were witnesses.
With Travis, Catch's need for destruction was controlled and allowed to build inside him until Travis was forced to unleash him. Always it was someone Travis had chosen. Always it was in private. And it was never enough for Catch's appetite.
Serving under Travis, his mind always seemed foggy and the fire inside him confined to a smolder. Only when Travis directed him toward a victim did he feel crispness in his thoughts and a blazing in his nature. The times were too few. The demon longed again for a master with enemies, but his thoughts were never clear enough to devise a plan to find one. Travis's will was overpowering.
But today the demon had felt a release. It had started when Travis met the woman in the cafe. When they went to the old man's house, he felt a power surge through him unlike anything he had felt in years. Again, when Travis called the girl, the power had increased.
He began to remember what he was: a creature who had brought kings and popes to power and in turn had usurped others. Satan himself, sitting on his throne in the great city of Pandemonium, had spoken to a multitude of hellish hosts, "In our exile, we must be beholden unto Jehovah for two things: one, that we exist, and two, that Catch has no ambition." The fallen angels laughed with Catch at the joke, for that was a time before Catch had walked among men. Men had been a bad influence on Catch.
He would have a new master; one who could be corrupted by his power. He had seen her that afternoon in the saloon and sensed her hunger for control over others. Together they would rule the world. The key was near; he felt it. If Travis found it, Catch would be sent back to hell. He had to find it first and get it into the hands of the witch. After all, it was better to rule on Earth than to serve in hell.