Howard Phillips, the owner of H.P.'s Cafe, had just settled down in the study of his stone cottage when he looked out the window and saw something moving through the trees.
Howard had spent most of his adult life trying to prove three theories he had formulated in college: one, that before man had walked the Earth there had been a powerful race of intelligent beings who had achieved a high level of civilization, then for some unknown reason had disappeared; two, that the remnants of their civilization still existed underground or under the ocean, and through extreme cunning and guile had escaped detection by man; and three, that they were planning to return as masters of the planet in a very unfriendly way.
What lurked in the woods outside Howard Phillips's cottage was the first physical evidence of his theories that he had ever encountered. He was at once elated and terrified. Like the child who is delighted by the idea of Santa Claus, then cries and cowers behind its mother when confronted with the corpulent red-suited reality of a department-store Santa, Howard Phillips was not fully prepared for a physical manifestation of what he had long believed extant. He was a scholar, not an adventurer. He preferred his experiences to come secondhand, through books. Howard's idea of adventure was trying whole wheat toast with his daily ham and eggs instead of the usual white bread.
He stared out the window at the creature moving in the moonlight. It was very much like the creatures he had read about in ancient manuscripts: bipedal like a man, but with long, apelike arms; reptilian. Howard could see scales reflecting in the moonlight. The one inconsistency that bothered him was its size. In the manuscripts, these creatures, who were said to be kept as slaves by the Old Ones, had always been small in stature, no more than a few feet tall. This one was enormous – four, maybe five meters tall.
The creature stopped for moment, then turned slowly and looked directly at Howard's window. Howard resisted the urge to dive to the floor and so stood staring straight into the eyes of the nightmare.
The creature's eyes were the size of car headlamps and they glowed a faint orange around slotted, feline pupils. Long, pointed scales lay back against its head, giving the impression of ears. They stood there, staring at each other, the creature and the man, neither moving, until Howard could bear it no longer. He grabbed the curtains and pulled them shut, almost ripping them from the rod in the process. Outside he could hear the sound of laughter.
When he dared to peak through the gap in the curtains, the creature was gone.
Why hadn't he been more scientific in his observation? Why hadn't he run for his camera? For all his work at putting together clues from arcane grimoirs to prove the existence of the Old Ones, people had labeled him a crackpot. One photograph would have convinced them. But he had missed his chance. Or had he?
Suddenly it occurred to Howard that the creature had seen him. Why should the Old Ones be so careful not to be discovered for so long, then walk in the moonlight as if out for a Sunday stroll? Perhaps it had not moved on at all but was circling the house to do away with the witness.
First he thought of weapons. He had none in the house. Many of the old books in his library had spells for protection, but he had no idea where to start looking. Besides, the verge of panic was not the ideal mental state in which to do research. He might still be able to bolt to his old Jaguar and escape. Then again, he might bolt into the claws of the creature. All these thoughts passed through his mind in a second.
The phone. He snatched the phone from his desk and dialed. It seemed forever for the dial to spin, but finally there was a ring and a woman's voice at the other end.
"Nine-one-one, emergency," she said.
"Yes, I wish to report a lurker in the woods."
"What is your name, sir?"
"And what is the address you are calling from?"
"Five-oh-nine Cambridge Street, in Pine Cove."
"Are you in any immediate danger?"
"Well, yes, that is why I called."
"You say you have a prowler. Is he attempting to enter the house?"
"You have seen the prowler?"
"Yes, outside my window, in the woods."
"Can you describe him?"
"He is an abomination of such abysmal hideousness that the mere recollection of this monstrosity perambulating in the dark outside my domicile fills me with the preternatural chill of the charnel house."
"That would be about how tall?"
Howard paused to think. Obviously the law enforcement system was not prepared to deal with perversions from the transcosmic gulfs of the nethermost craters of the underworld. Yet he needed assistance.
"The fiend stands two meters," he said.
"Could you see what he was wearing?"
Again Howard considered the truth and rejected it. "Jeans, I believe. And a leather jacket."
"Could you tell if he was armed?"
"Armed? I should say so. The beast is armed with monstrous claws and a toothed maw of the most villainous predator."
"Calm down, sir. I am dispatching a unit to your home. Make sure the doors are locked. Stay calm, I'll stay on the line until the officers arrive."
"How long will that be?"
"About twenty minutes."
"Young woman, in twenty minutes I shall be little more than a shredded memory!" Howard hung up the phone.
It had to be escape, then. He took his greatcoat and car keys from the foyer and stood leaning against the front door. Slowly he slipped the lock and grabbed the door handle.
"On three, then," he said to himself.
"One." He turned the door handle.
"Two." He bent, preparing to run.
"Three!" He didn't move.
"All right, then. Steel yourself, Howard." He started the count again.
"One." Perhaps the beast was not outside.
"Two." If it was a slave creature, it wasn't dangerous at all.
"Three!" He did not move.
Howard repeated the process of counting, over and over, each time measuring the fear in his heart against the danger that lurked outside. Finally, disgusted with his own cowardliness, he threw the door open, and bolted into the dark.
Billy Winston was on the final stretch of the nightly audit at the Rooms-R-Us Motel. His fingers danced across the calculator like a spastic Fred Astaire. The sooner he finished, the sooner he could log onto the computer and become Roxanne. Only thirty-seven of the motel's one hundred rooms were rented tonight, so he was going to finish early. He couldn't wait. He needed Roxanne's ego boost after being ditched by The Breeze the night before.
He hit the total button with a flourish, as if he had just played the final note of a piano concerto, then wrote the figure into the ledger and slammed the book.
Billy was alone in the motel. The only sound was the hum of the fluorescent lights. From the windows by his desk he had a 180-degree view of the highway and the parking lot, but there was nothing to see. At that time of night a car or two passed every half hour or so. Just as well. He didn't like distractions while he was being Roxanne.
Billy pushed a stool up to the front counter behind the computer. He typed in his access code and logged on.
WITKSAS: HOW'S YOUR DOG, SWEETIE? SEND: PNCVCAL
The Rooms-R-Us Motel chain maintained a computer network for making reservations at their motels all over the world. From any location a desk clerk could contact any of the two hundred motels in the chain by simply entering a seven-letter code. Billy had just sent a message to the night auditor in Wichita, Kansas. He started at the green phosphorescent screen, waiting for an answer.
PNCVCAL: ROXANNE! MY DOG IS LONELY. HELP ME, BABY. WITKSAS
Wichita was on line. Billy punched up a reply.
WITKSAS: MAYBE HE NEEDS A LITTLE DISCIPLINE. I COULD SMOTHER HIM IF YOU WANT. SEND: PNCVCAL
There was a pause while Billy waited.
PNCVCAL: YOU WANT TO HOLD HIS POOR FUZZY FACE BETWEEN YOUR MELONS UNTIL HE BEGS? IS THAT IT? WITKSAS
Billy thought for a moment. This was why they loved him. He couldn't just throw them an answer they could get from any sleazebeast. Roxanne was a goddess.
WITKSAS: YES. AND BEAT HIM SOFTLY ON THE EARS. BAD DOG. BAD DOG. SEND: PNCVCAL
Again Billy waited for the response. A message appeared on the screen.
WHERE ARE YOU DARLING? I MISS YOU. TULSOKL.
It was his lover from Tulsa. Roxanne could handle two or three at once, but she wasn't in the mood for it right now. She was feeling a little crampy. Billy adjusted his crotch, his panties were riding up a bit. He typed two messages.
WITKSAS: GO PET YOUR DOGGIE FOR A WHILE. AUNTIE ROXANNE WILL CHECK ON YOU IN A WHILE. SEND: PNCVCAL
TULSOKL: TOOK AN EVENING OFF TO SHOP FOR SOMETHING LACY TO WEAR FOR YOU. I HOPE YOU DON'T FIND IT TOO SHOCKING. SEND: PNCVCAL
While he was waiting for a response from Oklahoma, Billy dug into his gym bag for his red high heels. He liked to hook the stiletto heels into the rungs of the stool while he talked to his lovers. When he glanced up, he thought he saw something moving out in the parking lot. Probably just a guest getting something from the car.
PNCVCAL: YOU SWEET LITTLE THING, YOU COULD NEVER SHOCK ME. TELL ME WHAT YOU BOUGHT. TULSOKL
Billy started to type in a modest description of a lace teddy he had seen in a catalog.
To the guy in Tulsa, Roxanne was a shy little flower; to Wichita she was a dominatrix. The desk clerk in Seattle saw her as a leather-clad biker chick. The old man in Arizona thought she was a struggling single mother of two, barely making it on a desk clerk's salary. He always wanted to send her money. There were ten of them in all. Roxanne gave them what they needed. They loved her.
Billy heard the double doors of the lobby open, but he did not look up. He finished typing his message and pressed the SEND button. "Can I help you," he said mechanically, still not looking up.
"You betcha," a voice said. Two huge reptilian hands clacked down on the counter about four feet on each side of Billy. He looked up into the open mouth of the demon coming at his face. Billy pushed back from the keyboard. His heel caught in the rung of the stool and he went over backward as the giant maw snapped shut above him. Billy let loose a long, sirenlike scream and began scrambling on his hands and knees behind the counter toward the back office. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw the demon crawling over the counter after him.
Once in the office, Billy leapt to his feet and slammed the door. As he turned to run out the back door, he heard the door fly open and slam against the wall.
The back door of the office led into a long corridor of rooms. Billy pounded on the doors as he passed. No one opened a door, but there were angry shouts from inside the rooms.
Billy turned and saw the demon filling the far end of the corridor. It was in a crouch, moving down the corridor on all fours, crawling awkward and batlike in the confined space. Billy dug in his pocket for his pass key, found it, and ran down the hallway and around the corner. Making the corner, he twisted his ankle. White pain shot up his leg, and he cried out. He limped to the closest door. The images of women in horror movies who twisted their ankles and feebly fell into the clutches of the monster raced through his head. Damn high heels.
He fumbled the key into the lock while looking back down the hallway. The door opened and Billy fell into the room just as the monster rounded the corner behind him.
He kicked the stiletto heel off his good foot, vaulted up and hopped across the empty room to the sliding glass door. The safety bar was set. He fell to his knees and began clawing at it. The only light in the room was coming from the hallway, and suddenly that was eclipsed. The monster was working its way through the doorway.
"What the fuck are you!" Billy screamed.
The monster stopped just inside the room. Even crouching over, its shoulders hit the ceiling. Billy cowered by the sliding door, still clawing under the curtains at the safety bar. The monster looked around the room, its huge head turning back and forth like a searchlight. To Billy's amazement, it reached around and turned on the lights. It seemed to be studying the bed.
"Does that have Magic Fingers?" it said.
"What!" Billy said. It came out a scream.
"That bed has Magic Fingers, right?"
Billy pulled the safety bar loose and hurled it at the monster. The heavy steel bar hit the monster in the face and rattled to the floor. The monster showed no reaction. Billy reached for the latch on the door and started to pull it open.
The monster scuttled forward, reached over Billy's head, and pushed the door shut with one clawed finger. Billy yanked on the door but it was held fast. He collapsed under the monster with a long, agonizing wail.
"Give me a quarter," the monster said.
Billy looked up into the huge lizard face. The monster's grin was nearly two feet wide. "Give me a quarter!" it repeated.
Billy dug into his pocket, came out with a handful of change, and timidly held it up to the monster.
Still holding the door shut with one hand, the monster reached down with the other and plucked a quarter from Billy's hand with two claws, using them like chopsticks.
"Thanks," it said. "I love Magic Fingers."
The demon let go of the door. "You can go now," it said.
Before he could think about it, Billy threw the door open and dove through. He was climbing to his feet when something caught him by the leg from behind and dragged him back into the room.
"I was just kidding. You can't go."
The monster held Billy upside down by his leg while it dropped the quarter into the little metal box on the nightstand.
Billy flailed in the air, screaming and clawing at the demon, ripping his fingernails against its scales. The monster took Billy into its arms like a teddy bear and lay back on the bed. Its feet hung off the end and nearly touched the dresser on the opposite wall.
Billy could not scream; there was no breath for a scream. The monster let go with one arm and placed one long claw at Billy's ear.
"Don't you just love Magic Fingers?" it said. Then it drove the claw though Billy's brain.
After Merle died and Rachel observed a respectable period of mourning, which was precisely the same amount of time it took the courts to transfer Merle's property to her, she sold the Cessna and the trailer, bought herself a Volkswagen van, and on the advice of the women at the shelter, headed for Berkeley. In Berkeley, they insisted, she would find a community of women who could help her stay off the wheel of abuse. They were right.
The women in Berkeley welcomed Rachel with open arms. They helped her find a place to live, enrolled her in exercise and self-actualization courses, taught her to defend herself, nurture herself, and most important, to respect herself. She lost weight and grew strong. She thrived.
Within a year she took the remainder of her inheritance and bought a lease on a small studio adjacent to the University of California campus and began teaching high-intensity aerobics. She soon gained a reputation as a tough, domineering bitch of an instructor. There was a waiting list to get into her classes. The fat little girl had come into her own as a beautiful and powerful woman.
Rachel taught six classes a day, putting herself through the rigors of each workout along with her students. After a few months of that regimen, she fell ill, waking one morning to find that she had just enough strength to call the women in her classes to cancel, and no more. One of her students, a statuesque, gray-haired woman in her forties named Bella, appeared at Rachel's door a few hours later.
Once through the door Bella began giving orders. "Take off your clothes and get back in bed. I'll bring you some tea in a moment." Her voice was deep and strong, yet somehow soothing. Rachel did as she was told. "I don't know what you think you've done to deserve the punishment you are giving yourself, Rachel," Bella said, "but it has to stop."
Bella sat on the edge of Rachel's bed and watched while Rachel drank the tea. "Now lie on your stomach and relax."
Bella applied fragrant oil to Rachel's back and began rubbing, first with long, slow strokes that spread the oil, then gradually digging her fingers into the muscles until Rachel thought she would cry out in pain. When the message was finished, Rachel felt even more exhausted than before. She fell into a deep sleep.
When Rachel awoke, Bella repeated the process, forcing Rachel to drink the bitter tea, then kneading her muscles until they ached. Again, Rachel slept.
When Rachel awoke the fourth time, Bella again served her the tea, but this time she had Rachel lie on her back to receive her massage. Bella's hands played gently over her body, lingering between her legs and on her breasts. Through the drugged haze of the tea, Rachel noticed that the older woman was almost naked and had rubbed her own body with the same fragrant oils that she used on Rachel.
It didn't occur to Rachel to resist. Since Bella had come through the door, she had been giving orders and Rachel had obeyed. In the dim light of Rachel's little apartment they became lovers. It had been two years since Rachel had been with a man. Trading soft caresses with Bella, she didn't care if she was ever again.
When Rachel was back on her feet, Bella introduced her to a group of women who met at Bella's house once a week to perform ceremonies and rituals. Among these women Rachel learned about a new power she carried within herself, the power of the Goddess. Bella tutored her in the machinations of white magic and soon Rachel was leading the coven in rituals, while Bella looked on like a proud mother.
"Modulate your voice," Bella told her. "No matter what you are saying it should sound like a chant to the Goddess. The coven should be taken with the chant. That is the meaning of enchantment, my dear."
Rachel gave up her apartment and moved into Bella's restored Victorian house near the U.C. campus. For the first time in her life, she felt truly happy. Of course, it didn't last.
One afternoon she came home to find Bella in bed with a bald and bewhiskered professor of music. Rachel was livid. She threatened the professor with a fireplace poker and chased him, half-naked, into the street. He exited clutching his tweed jacket and corduroy slacks in front of him.
"You said you loved me!" Rachel screamed at Bella.
"I do love you, dear." Bella did not seem the least bit upset. Her voice was deep and modulated like a chant. "This was about power, not love."
"If I wasn't filling your needs, you should have said something."
"You are the most wonderful lover I have known, dear Rachel. But Dr. Mendenhall holds the mortgage on our house. That loan is interest free, in case you hadn't noticed."
"Aren't we all, dear?"
"You are. I am. The Goddess is. We all have our price. Be it love, or money, or power, Rachel. Why do you think the women in your exercise classes put themselves through so much pain?"
"You're changing the subject."
"Answer me," Bella demanded. "Why?"
"They want a sound body. They want a strong vessel to carry a strong spirit."
"They don't give a rat's ass about a strong spirit. They want a tight ass so men will want them. They will deny it to the death, but it's true. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you will realize your own power."
"You're sick. This goes against everything you've ever taught me."
"This is the most important thing I ever will teach you, so listen! Know your price, Rachel."
"You think I'm some cheap slut, do you? You think you're above selling yourself? How much rent have you ever paid here?"
"I offered. You said it didn't matter. I loved you."
"That's your price, then."
"It's not. It's love."
"Sold!" Bella climbed out of bed and strode across the room, her long gray hair flying behind her. She took her robe from the closet, threw it around herself, and tied the sash. "Love me for what I am, Rachel. Just as I love you for what you are. Nothing has changed. Dr. Mendenhall will be back, whimpering like a puppy. If it will make you feel better, you can be the one that takes him. Maybe we can do it together."
"You're sick. How could you even suggest such a thing?"
"Rachel, as long as you see men as human beings, we are going to have a problem. They are inferior beings, incapable of love. How could a few moments of animal friction with a subhuman affect us? What we have between us?"
"You sound like a man caught with his pants down."
Bella sighed. "I don't want you around the others until you calm down. There's some money in my jewelry box. Why don't you take it and go down to Esalen for a week or so. Think this over. You'll feel better when you get back."
"What about the others?" Rachel asked. "How do you think they'll feel when they find out that all the magic, all the spiritualism you preach, is just so much bullshit?"
"Everything is true. They follow me because they admire my power. This is part of that power. I haven't betrayed anyone."
"You've betrayed me."
"If you feel that way, then perhaps you'd better leave." Bella went into the bathroom and began drawing a bath. Rachel followed her.
"Why should I leave? I could just tell them. I know as much as you do now. I could lead them."
"Dear Rachel." Bella was adding oils to her bath and not looking up. "Didn't you learn anything from killing your husband? Destruction is a man's way."
Rachel was stunned. She had told Bella about the accident but not that she had caused it. She had told no one.
Bella looked up at her at last. "You can stay if you wish. I still love you."
"I'm sorry, Rachel. I thought you were more highly evolved." Bella slipped out of her robe and into her bath. Rachel stood in the doorway staring down at her.
"I love you," she said.
"I know you do, dear. Now, go pack your things."
Rachel couldn't bear the idea of staying in Berkeley. Everywhere she went she encountered reminders of Bella. She loaded up her van and spent a month driving around California, looking for a place where she might fit in. Then, one morning while reading the paper over breakfast, she spotted a column called "California Facts." It was a simple list of figures that informed readers of obscure facts such as which California county produces the most pistachios (Sacramento), where one had the best chance of having one's car stolen (North Hollywood), and tucked amid a m��lange of seemingly insignificant demographics, which California town had the highest per capita percentage of divorced women (Pine Cove). Rachel had found her destination.
Now, five years later, she was firmly set in the community, respected by the women and feared and lusted after by the men. She had moved slowly, recruiting into her coven only women who sought her out – mostly women who were on the verge of leaving their husbands and who needed something to shore them up during the divorce process. Rachel provided them with the support they required, and in return they gave her their loyalty. Just six months ago she initiated the thirteenth and final member of the coven.
At last she was able to perform the rituals that she had worked so hard to learn from Bella. For years they seemed ineffective, and Rachel attributed their failure to not having a full coven. Now she was starting to suspect that the Earth magic they were trying to perform just did not work – that there was no real power to be had.
She could lead the coven to attempt anything, and on her command they would do it. That was a power of sorts. She could extract favors from men with no more than a seductive glance and in that, there was a power. But none of it was enough. She wanted the magic to work. She wanted real power.
Catch had sensed Rachel's lust for power in the Head of the Slug that afternoon, recognizing in her what he had seen in his ruthless masters before Travis. That night, while Rachel lay in the dark of her cabin, contemplating her own impotence, the demon came to her.
She had locked the door that night, more out of habit than need, as there was very little crime in Pine Cove. Around nine she heard someone try the doorknob and she sat upright in bed.
"Who is it?"
As if in answer, the door bent slowly inward and the doorjamb cracked, then splintered away. The door opened, but there was no one behind it. Rachel pulled the quilt up around her chin and scooted up into the corner of the bed.
"Who is it?"
A voice growled out of the darkness, "Don't be afraid. I will not hurt you."
The moon was bright. If someone was there, she should have been able to see his silhouette in the doorway, but strain as she might, she saw nothing.
"Who are you? What do you want?"
"No – what do you want?" the voice said.
Rachel was truly frightened; the voice was coming from an empty spot not two feet away from her bed.
"I asked you first," she said. "Who are you?"
"Ooooooooooo, I am the ghost of Christmas past."
Rachel poked herself in the leg with her thumbnail to make sure she was not dreaming. She wasn't. She found herself speaking to the disembodied voice in spite of herself.
"Christmas is months away."
"I know. I lied. I'm not the ghost of Christmas past. I saw that in a movie once."
"Who are you!" Rachel was near hysteria.
"I am all your dreams come true."
Someone must have planted a speaker somewhere in the house. Rachel's fear turned to anger. She leapt from bed to find the offending device. Two steps out of bed she ran into something and fell to the floor. Something that felt like claws wrapped around her waist. She felt herself being lifted and put back on the bed. Panic seized her. She began to scream as her bladder let go.
"Stop it!" The voice drowned her screams and rattled the windows of the cabin. "I don't have time for this."
Rachel cowered on the bed. She was panting and felt herself getting light-headed. She started to sink back into unconsciousness, but something caught her by the hair and yanked her back. Her mind searched for a touchstone in reality. A ghost – it was a ghost. Did she believe in ghosts? Perhaps it was time to start. Maybe it was him, returned for revenge.
"Merle, is that you?"
"I'm sorry, Merle, I had to…"
"Who is Merle?"
"You're not Merle?"
"Never heard of him."
"Then, who – what in the hell are you?"
"I am the defeat of your enemies. I am the power you crave. I am, live and direct from hell, the demon Catch! Ta-da!" There was a clicking on the floor like a tap-dancing step.
"You're an Earth spirit?"
"Er, uh, yes, an Earth spirit. That's me, Catch, the Earth spirit."
"But I didn't think the ritual worked."
"We tried to call you up at the meeting last week, but I didn't think it worked because I didn't draw the circle of power with a virgin blade that had been quenched in blood."
"What did you use?"
"A nail file."
There was a pause. Had she offended the Earth spirit? Here was the first evidence that her magic could work and she had blown it by compromising the materials called for in the ritual.
"I'm sorry," she said, "but it's not easy to find a blade that's been quenched in blood."
"If I had known, I…"
"No really, it's okay."
"Are you offended, Great Spirit?"
"I am about to bestow the greatest power in the world upon a woman who draws circles in the dirt with nail files. I don't know. Give me a minute."
"Then you will grant harmony to the hearts of the women in the coven?"
"What the fuck are you talking about?" the voice said.
"That is why we summoned you, O Spirit – to bring us harmony."
"Oh, yeah, harmony. But there is a condition."
"Tell me what you require of me, O Spirit."
"I will return to you later, witch. If I find what I am looking for, I will need you to renounce the Creator and perform a ritual. In return you will be given the command of a power that can rule the Earth. Will you do this?"
Rachel could not believe what she was hearing. Accepting that her magic worked was a huge step, yet she was speaking to the evidence. But to be offered the power to rule the world? She wasn't sure her career in exercise instruction had prepared her for this.
"Speak, woman! Or would you rather spend your life collecting gobs of hair from shower drains and fingernail parings from ashtrays?"
"How do you know about that?"
"I was destroying pagans when Charlemagne was alive. Now, answer; there is a hunger rising in me and I must go."
"Destroying pagans? I thought the Earth spirits were benevolent."
"We have our moments. Now, will you renounce the Creator?"
"Renounce the Goddess, I don't know…"
"Not the Goddess! The Creator!"
"But the Goddess…"
"Wrong. The Creator, the All-Powerful. Help me out here, babe – I'm not allowed to say his name."
"You mean the Christian God?"
"Bingo! Will you renounce him?"
"I did that a long time ago."
"Good. Wait here. I will be back."
Rachel searched for a last word, but nothing came. She heard a rustling in the leaves outside and ran to the door. In the moonlight she could see the shapes of cattle standing in the nearby pasture and something moving among them. Something that was growing larger as it moved away toward town.