Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 16
Stories
Return to Sender
by James Maxey
Through the Blood
by Mette Ivie Harrison
Odd Jobs
by Josh Vogt
Mudlarks
by Kat Otis
Mean Spirited
by Edmund R. Schubert
Folk of the Fringe Serialization
America
by Orson Scott Card
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Return to Sender
    by James Maxey
Return to Sender
Artwork by Julie Dillon

I'm at the window, looking out over the dribble of traffic at two in the morning. In the window's dim reflection, Brother Anthony frowns as he studies the items spread out on the bed -- various receipts, a few blurry pictures, handwritten notes. In his brown wool monk's habit, with the shaved tip of his scalp gleaming in the lamplight, he looks like he's walked straight out of the fifteenth century. He doesn't fit amid the modern furnishings in this hotel room on the twenty-third floor of a high-rise. He wears his otherness for everyone to see.

I place my hand on the window, my fingers meeting those of a matching phantom. My window-ghost stares into my eyes as if she doesn't recognize me. I'm dressed in a Backgammon Pizza uniform -- checkered shirt, navy pants, a cap with a bright red brim. My braided hair drapes over my shoulder and hangs down my chest like a black serpent. Like Sampson, I'm forbidden to cut my hair. But, even with locks down to my hips, I pass for an ordinary college girl with a side job delivering pizza. I look like I'm part of this world. It's only inside that I feel so out of place.

Brother Anthony clears his throat. "This intelligence isn't very useful, Crystal." He picks up a white slip of paper. "What is this? 1/2 pep, sg, x chez?"

"That's the pizza order of the Golden Veil."

He furrows his brow, not fathoming the code. Pizza isn't on the menu at the monastery. I had my first taste only a month ago.

"Delivery driver may not have been the best cover," I say. "It's easy to get to Westcott's house, but I can't see much from the front door."

"Make conversation. Have them invite you inside." He offers this advice as if it's something I wouldn't have come up with on my own. I resist rolling my eyes.

"They would have been suspicious if I asked too many questions early on," I say. "Now they're used to me. It'll be easier to gain their trust."

I sound like I have some grand strategy. I'm clueless as to how to talk my way into the Golden Veil meeting house. The monks have trained me endless hours for combat, but never spent a single minute training me to make small talk. I know the true names of 3,333 angels, their realms and principalities, but don't know the name of a single professional sports team. Bill Westcott, the leader of the Golden Veil, gave me an opening on my second trip to his house. There was a football game on in the living room and he asked what team I rooted for. My brain locked up. All I know about football is that it's the sport where the ball isn't round.

"We're running out of time," says Brother Anthony. "It's two weekends until Halloween, and we still don't know which of hell's minions the Golden Veil plans to summon."

"I'll go back next Saturday. They always order pizza. If they're up to something, I'll find out."

"You used the word, 'if,'" says Brother Anthony.

I cringe, anticipating a scolding.

"Crystal, our success depends on your unwavering faith. You cannot doubt for even a moment that your cause is just! These men will unleash a terrible evil into the world if you aren't vigilant."

"I know."

He doesn't look convinced.

My window-ghost isn't convinced either.

It's three in the morning when I get back to the dorm. I tiptoe into the room with the lights out, so I won't wake my roommate. I stand for a minute in the darkness, listening to the silence; if Sherry's here, she isn't breathing. I flick on the lights and see her unmade bed.

Tension slides out of me. Sherry and I don't get along. What began as a lack of anything in common is festering into open hostility. She's a fashion conscious rich girl from Los Angeles. I'm the last Knight Templar, kidnapped at birth and raised in a hidden monastery in Idaho.

Since Sherry's not here, I strip out of my Backgammon uniform and put on a robe, then kneel to begin my nightly prayers. I'm supposed to devote four hours a day to prayer, but I've been slipping without the monks' constant supervision. Prayer is good for anyone's soul, but in my case it has extra benefits.

According to the monks, my father is an angel named Baphomet. He's one of the good guys, a warrior spirit who stands ready to fight the final battle when Judgment Day arrives. Only, his vigilance has been known to waver, and he sometimes slips off to earth to relax in the company of humans -- young, female humans in particular. For centuries, the Order of the Temple has tracked down Baphomet's bastard children and raised them as demi-angel soldiers, the Knights Templar. Through prayer I can tap into my angel blood and gain strength, toughness, and even a little magic. At least, that's the theory. Compared to the legends I hear about the feats of the knights of old, I don't feel all that strong or tough. The monks try to assure me that my magical gifts will kick in when they're truly needed; apparently a lot of the other knights got off to a slow start also. I wish I had someone to talk to about this, but Baphomet has mostly behaved himself this century; there aren't any other half-angels around.

I've been praying for ten minutes when the door opens. It's Sherry; she's in a short black dress. A guy I don't know is standing next to her, his arm tight around her waist. She looks like she'd collapse without his support.

"Oh crap," she says, seeing me. "I thought you'd be asleep." Her speech is slurred.

"Are you drunk?" I ask. She's showing all the signs of inebriation the monks have warned me about.

"What's it to you?" she asks. "Crystal, you gotta leave. Tim and I need to use the room."

"Jim," says the guy.

"Boys aren't allowed in the dorm at this hour. You could get expelled."

"No," she says, staggering toward me, "you could get expelled." She giggles, apparently pleased with herself. "Hit the road. Tim and I have business."

"Jim," he says. "I don't mind if she stays."

I stand up. "Jim, you have to leave."

"You aren't my mom," says Sherry. "Get out of here!"

She grabs me by the arm and tries to pull me toward the door. It's a simple matter to use the momentum of her tug and separate her from Jim. I spin her around and launch her toward the lower bunk with a gentle shove. She lands face down on her pillow.

I put my hands on my hips and give Jim a stern stare. "You're going to leave now."

"She invited me."

"I'm uninviting you." Then, though he's taller than me by a foot, I grab him by the throat with both hands, lift him from his feet, and carry him back into the hall. I drop him on his butt and say, "Have a good night," as I close the door.

I don't know if that was angel strength or adrenaline, but it felt pretty good.

Sherry is still in the bed, face down, giggling.

"Alcohol lowers your inhibitions," I say, wondering how she can be unaware of this. "It's extremely dangerous, not to mention illegal at our age."

She sighs, still face down. She looks completely limp, too worn out to move. She mumbles something.

"What was that?" I ask.

She turns her head slightly. "You're such a buzzkill."

I've not heard the word before, but it's easy enough to decipher from the context. I'm ready to lecture her, to point out how many different dangers she inviting to both body and soul, when I realize that she's passed out.

Out in the hall, I can hear footsteps stumbling away. Jim dissuades easily.

Too bad. It might have been fun to really pound him.

While I've had a lot of training, this is my first mission in the "real" world. The monks keep track of various supernatural threats, and the latest thing on their radar is a cult called the Golden Veil. The group was founded in Victorian England; it's waxed and waned over the years, vanishing completely for a few decades before a history professor named Bill Westcott started it back up.

My role as a student is the monks' way of hiding me in plain sight so I can keep tabs on Westcott. My job at Backgammon Pizza takes me straight to his living room every Saturday night. A side benefit of delivering pizza is that I get to pretend to be normal for whole hours at a time. My visits to the Golden Veil take only a couple of minutes. The rest of the night I'm bringing pizzas to rowdy college dorms and quiet, middle-class neighborhoods. Despite my inability to make small talk, I earn good tips. Mostly, I've been spending my money on music.

The background music at Backgammon is something called "oldies," though it's all new to me. I'm fond of this one singer called Elvis. I can't get enough of "Heartbreak Hotel." Of course to be heartbroken, I'd have to fall in love, and that's not going to happen. Romance, the monks tell me, would be the end of me. Like Sampson, I've got a list of no-nos as long as my arm. Sampson was done in by carnal desires. Fortunately, having grown up surrounded by pasty-faced monks, the needle on my carnal desire meter rests safely on "E."

It's the last Saturday before Halloween. The Golden Veil meets at 9:00 p.m.; the pizza order comes in at 9:05. It's always one large pie, half pepperoni, half sausage, extra cheese. The fact that it's one pizza is useful intelligence. Westcott doesn't have many followers.

I'm humming "Blue Suede Shoes," as I get out of my car. Westcott lives in a Victorian house, surrounded by high hedges. No grass grows in the yard; there's too much shade from the giant oaks that hide the front of the house. The place has seen better days. It's ringed by a wide porch that wraps all the way around, gray paint peeling, the boards split, rusty nail heads jutting up along the edges. I rap on the door. It's mostly glass, but I can't see inside due to a lace curtain, yellowed with age. As I wait, I softly sing, "uh-uh honey lay off of my --"

"Is that Elvis?" a voice behind me asks.

I spin around. Westcott is standing at the foot of the stairs. He has a small black Chihuahua on a leash. The dog growls and bares its teeth, his eyes narrow little slits.

"Didn't mean to startle you," says Westcott. "Hercules and I were at the hedge when you walked past. You were humming Elvis?"

"Yes sir."

Westcott smiles. He's sixty years old, tall but with hunched shoulders. He has a gentle smile and soft blue eyes. His hair is perfectly combed, and his cheeks have no trace of razor stubble. The most sinister thing about him is his complete lack of menace. He doesn't look like the leader of a cult planning on summoning a resident of hell.

He says, "I made a joke about Elvis in class and no one got it. Made me feel ancient."

"What was the joke?"

"I was lecturing on the Roman emperor Elagabalus, about how he died in a latrine. Said I could write a book on famous people who died in their bathroom; Elvis would be chapter twenty."

He smiles.

Was that the whole joke? I force myself to grin.

Westcott sighs. "Not that funny?"

"I just . . . I don't know much about Elvis. He's dead?"

Westcott laughs as he walks onto the porch. "Oh lord. Now I really feel old."

"Don't go by what I know. I had a sheltered childhood."

He nods. "I noticed the hair, and you're not wearing makeup. I had the impression you were a hippy, but now I'm guessing you're a fundamentalist?"

"Sort of," I say, annoyed that he feels so free to label me.

He winks at me. His eyes fall to my chest. This makes me uncomfortable until I realize he's reading my nametag. "We'll keep your Elvis fetish our little secret, Crystal. Come in while I get my wallet."

I step into the foyer. Three older men are sitting in the living room, just ten feet away. As Westcott goes into the room, I follow, and ask, "Is this your bridge night?"

"Poker, actually."

The living room is huge. There's a big fireplace and tall windows covered in curtains that have seen better days. Two beat-up leather couches face across a low, wide coffee table covered with dusty mail. Westcott was divorced ten years ago; it looks like it's been that long since anyone's vacuumed.

"Next weekend's Halloween," I say, searching for an opening. "What a great house for a party."

Westcott shrugs as he walks toward me, counting money. "I'm afraid my party days are behind me."

"He'd have to clean up if he had a party," jokes a short, dumpy man on one of the couches. I know him from my briefings as Scott Patterson, owner of Patterson's Pages, a used book store.

An idea pops into my head. "You know, pizza delivery is only one of my jobs. I also do maid work. My fees are really reasonable."

In a perfect world, Westcott would smile and ask what I charged. I could ask to see more of the house to form an estimate. Instead, he frowns. "I didn't invite you in to criticize my housekeeping."

The Chihuahua next to him is still growling, his pointy body aimed like an arrow as he eyes my ankles.

"I didn't mean any offense."

"None taken." Westcott hands me money. "Keep the change."

He takes the pizza from me and heads for the door. I see no choice but to follow.

"Good night," he says as he shuts the door behind me.

I look at the money. He's tipped me sixty cents.

Driving back to Backgammon, I weigh my options. Westcott's schedule is public knowledge; I'll have to break into his home when he's in class. Brother Anthony wanted me to take this approach a month ago. But, this is my first time living on my own, away from the monks. If I'd wrapped up this mission a month ago, I'd be back in the monastery now. I'm kind of enjoying playing college girl. I may not like my roommate, but at least my vocabulary is getting richer because of her.

At the end of my shift I clock out without talking to anyone. As a driver, I spend more time out of the restaurant than in it. I barely know the names of my coworkers. They frequently hang out around the back but I've never joined them. I don't have any friends my age. I don't have any friends at all, in fact, just trainers and handlers. Still, friendship isn't on my list of forbidden temptations. I'd love to find someone I could talk to about . . . well, about anything. I could tell them about angels and they could tell me about Elvis. But my coworkers behind the restaurant are poor candidates for companionship. They're always smoking back there. Tobacco is on my list of "thou-shalt-nots."

I walk past the schedule posted next to the time clock without paying it much attention. Then I step back and look closer. I'm not scheduled for next Saturday. I've been swapped with Jason to work Friday night.

I find Skater, the assistant manager, out back. He's only a year older than I am, but isn't a student. He's been working here full-time since he was seventeen. He's a few inches taller than me, athletic in a skinny way, with spiky black hair and a constellation of silver studs in both ears. His left arm is covered in tattoos, heavy black stripes in a tiger pattern. I've never seen him outside the restaurant without a cigarette in his mouth.

Skater is talking to Brandy, another driver, but their conversation is wrapping up.

"See you Monday," Brandy says as she walks toward a beat up Honda Civic. Skater flicks the remnants of his cigarette to the pavement, then turns to go back inside, nearly running into me.

"Woah," he says. "Didn't see you, Crystal."

His breath smells sweet, like cloves, instead of ordinary cigarettes.

"Why am I switched with Jason?" I ask. "I always work Saturdays."

He shrugs. "Jason's band has a gig Friday at the Cool Brew. Wanna go?"

"I'm working Friday! That's the point of this conversation."

"Oh, right. No problem. They won't get on stage 'til after midnight."

"Then why switch us?"

"He said please."

I cross my arms. "I can only work Saturdays."

"Then I'll get someone else to cover Friday, and you can have Saturday off. Brandy's having a Halloween party. You wanna go to it with me?"

"She hasn't invited me."

"I'm inviting you."

My thoughts skid to a sudden halt. Is he asking me out? "I . . . uh --"

Skater jumps in, saving me from one awkward moment by plunging me into another. "I mean, hey, it doesn't have to be, like, a date. I understand if you aren't into men."

My cheeks flush red. "I . . . what are you implying?"

He looks at his feet, embarrassed. "Wow, I'm really blowing this. Sorry. You're tough to read, Crystal. You're so quiet."

"I'm just shy," I say, pushing a stray strand of hair back from my face.

"So . . . you wanna go to the party with me, shy girl?"

"Why would you ask me out? You don't know anything about me."

He shrugs. "You're mysterious. I like mysteries."

"I'm not mysterious. I'm boring."

"I'm not picking up that vibe," he says, looking directly at my face. "Here's a wild guess: I bet you were home-schooled."

"You might say that."

"I was too! My mom and dad are religious freaks. They went to this crazy church. It's why I moved out of the house when I was seventeen."

I frown. "What church?"

"The Pentecostal Assembly of Signs. It has, like, twenty members, all snake handlers."

"Snake handlers?"

"They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them. They play with venomous snakes during worship. I was barely out of diapers before I started picking up snakes myself. But, when I was fourteen, one day I looked down at the copperhead in my lap and thought, 'Holy shit! This is insane!' My faith never recovered from that moment of clarity. Eventually, I was kicked out of the church, then kicked out of my family."

"I'm sorry."

"I'm not. I've got my own job, my own place, my own life. I'm broke half the time, but I get by. My folks used to warn of the evils of the world; most of those evils are a lot of damn fun. How about you, Crystal? What are your parents?"

"Um . . . Catholic," I say. Which is a lie; the church considers the Order of the Temple heretical. But telling him my father is an angel and my mother was a stripper in Vegas doesn't seem prudent.

"You still religious?" he asks.

"I guess."

"That doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement."

I shrug.

"Religious or not, you can still party, right?"

"I'm not sure I can. I definitely don't drink."

"Hey, neither do I," he says. "Can't stand the smell of beer. Clove cigarettes are my only real vice."

"Cigarettes of any kind are dangerous."

"What are you, the Surgeon General?" He rolls his eyes. "All fun things are dangerous. If you tried to avoid everything bad, you'd have to seal yourself off in a monastery. Who the hell wants that?"

I want to answer, "Not me," but hold my tongue. It's disturbing at how quickly these words spring into my head.

I told Skater I'd think about going to the party, not really intending to. But, two days later, the entire conversation keeps playing in my mind as I walk across Westcott's backyard in broad daylight. I envy Skater; in a way, he's lucky to have been raised by people with such outlandish beliefs. It must have made it easy to break free from their control. I don't have that luxury. I suppose I should be grateful to have been stolen from my cradle by monks who taught me the truth of my angelic heritage instead of being raised by members of some weird cult.

Westcott teaches at 1:30. I have at least an hour. The high hedges block me from sight as I reach his back door. It takes about thirty seconds to pick the lock to his kitchen.

Alas, I'd forgotten about the Chihuahua; the little ankle-biter charges into the kitchen and immediately starts biting my ankles. I snatch him by the scruff of his neck before he can draw blood. He sprays my arm with dog spittle as he snarls. I pull open the oven door, toss him inside, then slam it shut.

With the dog out of the way, I'm free to search the house. I start with the piles of documents on the living room coffee table. Everything proves mundane -- papers from the college about changes to an insurance plan, an invitation to a classical history conference, a letter from NPR thanking Westcott for his recent donation, and mounds of junk mail.

I leave the table, realizing that I'll never be able to read everything in time. And, really, what am I looking for? A confession scrawled in blood? The receipt the devil gave Westcott for his soul?

Upstairs, the master bedroom is a mess. The man doesn't bother to pick up his socks or underwear. Half of the king-sized bed is piled with books and magazines. Coffee cups are stacked on the windowsill. The room smells strongly of dog.

On the wall, there's a photograph; a much younger Westcott stands next to a woman. Disturbingly, her face has been scratched off. At some point, the photo has been removed from the frame and arrows and knives riddling the woman's torso have been drawn in with a ballpoint pen. From what I've read, Westcott's ex-wife pretty much got everything but the house in the divorce. I suppose mangling her photograph isn't that strange, though reframing it and hanging it above your bed does seem a little unhealthy. Still, it's hardly evidence of black magic.

I open the bedroom closet, and my heart skips a beat. A black robe hangs in a clear dry-cleaning bag. I pull it out, barely believing my eyes. The classic image of an evil cultist is a man in a hooded black robe. Westcott is living up to the cliché! Only, the robe doesn't have a hood. Instead, there's a square hat with a tassel in the same bag. Suddenly, it hits me: This is a ceremonial robe -- graduation ceremony.

The rest of the hour is equally fruitless. A set of old, leather-bound books proves to be by Charles Dickens rather than Aleister Crowley. The cellar holds picks and shovels . . . and rakes and hoes and other gardening tools. There's a freezer big enough to hold a body. Mainly it holds steaks and corn-on-the-cob.

With time to spare, I yank the dog from the oven and fling him toward the couch in the next room as I bolt for the backyard. Two seconds after I close the door there's a thump as the dog hits it, barking wildly.

I shake my head as I stroll away. The devil-dog is the only real evidence that Westcott is in league with evil. What if the monks are wrong about him? What if they're wrong about a lot of things?

Brother Anthony scratches his scaly scalp as he reads my report.

"Perhaps the dog is a familiar?" he says.

"Perhaps the dog is a dog."

"That doesn't change the basic case against Westcott. He's a direct blood descendent of Wynn Westcott, the original founder. He's inherited all the scrolls and magical relics of the order. Then there's Patterson, the book dealer, who purchased the only surviving manuscript of the Gibbering Codex. And, most damning, we have the intercepted emails, pointing to a summoning this Saturday."

"About those emails. Why haven't I seen them?"

"They would only distract you. It's not as if they openly discuss their plans. Brother Bacon is still working to unlock the code phrases of the sect. Until then, we --"

"What if there are no codes?"

Brother Anthony furrows his brow.

"What if you've intercepted innocent emails and are so determined there's a code that you read things into them?"

"This is no time for doubt. We know what Westcott intends. The Gibbering Codex contains instructions to open a gate directly to hell and pull forth its most dreaded spirits. We know this requires the prayers of thirteen unholy men, the sacrifice of a virgin, barren soil, and the psychic energies unleashed by millions of revelers on Halloween. You have yet to make progress on any of these leads."

I throw my hands into the air. "Maybe there's no progress to be made! First, there aren't thirteen guys. It's just four old men who say they play poker. As for sacrificing a virgin, I've been reading the papers . . . unless they have a volunteer, they'd need to kidnap someone, and no one around here has gone missing. Barren soil? Westcott's yard fits the bill, I guess. But I'm not willing to chop a man's head off just because he's got a bad lawn."

"The threat --"

"If Westcott is so dangerous, why don't we call the police?"

Brother Anthony frowns. "Ordinary legal authorities won't understand the evidence. They would --"

I hold up my hand, not letting him finish: "If we went to them, we'd sound crazy. Because it is crazy. Everything you've ever told me is crazy."

Brother Anthony looks shocked. I'm surprised that I've said it as well. But, now that it's out in the open, I have no regrets. I feel -- how did Skater put it? -- my moment of clarity.

I've been raised by men who admit they kidnapped me. I've been told my father is an angel. And, yeah, I've seen some things that are hard to explain. Things I thought for certain were supernatural. But magicians pull rabbits out of hats and saw women in half. Little kids believe it's magic.

I'm not a little kid anymore.

Brother Anthony composes himself and says, "You're behaving like a child, Crystal. If you're done with your tantrum, we need to discuss the plan for Halloween."

I head toward the door and don't look back. "I already have plans."

On Friday, I go to the concert with Skater. It's a musical style called "thrash." Elvis didn't prepare me for this. The noise pumping from the speakers is pure chaos. I can't discern a melody. The only thing musical about it is the muddled pulse of bass beats.

I kind of like it.

"It reminds me of the music in my church," Skater yells.

"You had a bass guitar in your church?" I shout back.

"Sure! Drums, keyboard, the works. Men would run around the sanctuary on the backs of pews, proof they were possessed by the Holy Spirit. Turns out, they were just possessed by rock and roll."

We wander around the club. Skater knows everyone. People smile and speak to me; mostly I just nod, since the noise makes conversation tricky. A girl in torn blue jeans offers me a plastic cup full of beer. I think it over for thirty seconds, then take a sip. Skater's right; it tastes awful. But, even though I swallow instead of spit, I don't feel any different. This is what the monks were so afraid of?

Later, we pass an all-night diner as Skater walks me back to the dorm. It's four in the morning and I'm wide awake. We go in and sit at a booth and I have my first cup of coffee. It's horrible! It's my second forbidden-fruit of the night, and the second let-down. I watch as Skater augments his cup with heaping spoons of sugar and three packets of cream. I try the same approach. The coffee turns sweet and milky, the residual bitterness a tickle on my tongue instead of a violent assault. This is good enough it must be sinful.

It's dawn when we reach my dorm. At some point my hand has slipped into his. He pulls me close and leans his face toward mine, his eyes closed. My first kiss doesn't go smoothly. I keep my eyes open, worried our mouths will miss. Skater's stubbly mustache is like sandpaper, but his lips are soft and sugary. His clove cigarettes make them taste like I imagine candy must taste.

I've never had candy.

What better day to get my hands on some than Halloween?

Saturday afternoon, after a day of fitful sleep, I visit Wal-Mart. I stare at the costumes, bewildered. I recognize the witches and vampires, but have no clue what a Darth Vader is. It's lucky Westcott didn't have one of these in his closet.

I buy a nurse costume. Pretending to be someone doing good in the world makes more sense than pretending to be a witch. The costume has an impractically short skirt. I pick up a pair of tights to go with the outfit.

Then I put the tights back.

I go to the toiletries section and find a package of pink razors. I'm forbidden to cut my hair, no matter where it might grow.

As night falls, I spend an hour in the shower, shaving my legs. It's a painful experience, but once I'm halfway done with the left calf, there's no turning back. The right leg goes better. A few nicks, but it doesn't look like I've been crawling across barbed wire. The smoothness beneath my fingertips is strange and thrilling. I smile as I think about Skater's reaction.

After I get dressed, I stare at myself in the mirror, bouncing between excitement and mortification. I've tried applying make-up. The lip-stick looks good, but I'm not certain the eye-liner works. That's the least of my worries; the nurse's outfit is the most revealing thing I've ever worn. With my exposed cleavage and bare legs, I feel naked. On the other hand, I've been strenuously exercising since I could walk. My body is taut and toned, a living sculpture I've sweated untold hours to polish. Why shouldn't I show it off a little?

Despite my internal pep talk, I cringe as the door opens and reach for my trench coat. It's Sherry. She's alone and, to my relief, looks sober. I barely see her any more; she's been avoiding me since I kicked out Tim. Jim. Whoever.

Her eyes widen as she catches sight of me in the revealing outfit. Before I can cover up she says, "This is a new look for you, church girl."

I put on the coat. "I'd stick around to let you tease me about it, but I'm running late."

She smiles faintly as she looks me over. "I had no idea you were so ripped. I thought Jim was crazy when he said you picked him up. But you look good. You should show your legs more often."

"Oh. Thanks." I glance at the clock, feeling nervous. Is she complimenting me to set me up for an insult? "I really am running late."

She's standing in the doorway. I need her to move so I can leave. But she just lingers there, looking like she has something else to say. She presses her lips tightly together and breathes deeply through her nose. Then, she relaxes, and says, "Look, about Jim . . . I . . . I'm sorry."

I tilt my head, not certain I've heard her correctly.

"I'd never drank that much before," she says, shaking her head slowly. "I kind of don't remember the details. But, to hear Jim tell it, you were ready to kick his ass."

"I'd had a long day," I say. "I hope I didn't hurt him."

"You don't have anything to feel sorry about. I was out of control that night. I'd only just met Jim. Now, I've had a chance to talk to him, and, honestly, he's kind of a creep. I'm embarrassed that you cared more about me that night than I did. This isn't easy for me to say, but thank you."

"You're welcome," I say, still wondering if this is a joke. "Does this mean we aren't enemies anymore?"

"Definitely." Then, in a hesitant tone, "Maybe we'll even be, you know, friends."

"I'd like that."

"Good," she says. Then, she looks at my face with a critical eye. "It's a duty of friends to be honest, and honestly Crystal, your make-up looks awful. Take your coat off. Your date can wait ten more minutes. I'll have you all dolled up in no time."

Skater doesn't drive, so I'm supposed to pick him up. It's almost nine when I leave the dorm, pitch dark and chilly. The wind on my bare legs makes me wish I'd bought the tights. I can't wait to turn on the heat in my car. I look into my purse, finding my keys. When I look up, there's a red and white dishrag rushing toward my face. I release a stifled scream as a large, strong hand smashes the damp cloth against my mouth. An arm wraps around my waist from behind and jerks me from my feet. I suppose I should fear for my life, but all I can think of is that this idiot's going to smudge my make-up.

Whoever my attacker is, he's in for a surprise. I bring my elbows back in swift, hard jabs, connecting with ribs. My attacker grunts, but doesn't lose his grip. Since he's holding me in the air, I raise both legs high, then snap them back, my heels connecting with my assailant's knee caps. Something pops and we topple. He screams as his grip goes loose. I take a deep gasp.

Immediately, I go dizzy. The rag is still near my face, drenched with ether. I cough violently as footsteps charge toward me from a half dozen directions. People rushing to help?

Yes, but not to help me. A hand grabs the dishrag and pushes it back to my lips as strong fingers close around my wrists and ankles. I struggle, freeing a hand, but succeed only in smashing my knuckles into pavement.

Against my will, I inhale. The world spins as the sickly chemical air washes into my lungs. I breathe again, and fade. Distant voices. A dozen rough hands upon me. Spots dance before my eyes. My last ember of awareness smolders, then goes dark.

I flicker back toward consciousness. I open my eyes, but can't see anything. My arms are tied behind my back. I'm lulled by the soft rumble of wheels on pavement. Am I in a trunk? The air is still thick with ether. Slowly, I drift . . . back . . . out.

Fresh air washes over me. Hands grab my ankles, another pair slips into my armpits. I crack open my eyes and see a man pouring liquid from a brown bottle onto the dishrag. I try to speak, but the man turns, in slow, dreamlike motion, and drapes the rag over my face like a shroud.

I cannot fight the embrace of nothingness.

Flashes of awareness: Cold scissors against my ribs as my clothes are cut away, followed by a cold, silent, void. A glimpse of three men in black robes, whispering gibberish, trailing off to nothing. I rouse to the sound of a small dog snarling, then hear a murmured conversation.

"You've confirmed she's a virgin?"

"The doctor's sure of it."

"Sheeeeeeessss perrrrfect . . .

The voices retreat as I slide down an oily black vortex, never to return . . .

. . . and then I come back, my spirit clawing into my body inch by precious inch. I'm not lying down any more. My arms are numb; I'm hanging from my wrists. I'm freezing, stark naked. My jaw aches from the cloth stuffed in my mouth. It takes all my strength to open my eyelids. I'm in what looks like an airplane hanger, the concrete floor covered with oil stains. There's a chalk pentacle drawn on the floor, at least ten yards across. Candles gutter at the points, the only light.

I crane my neck. My back is pressed against a steel girder. My wrists are bound by a thick rope which vanishes into the darkness above me. My legs are also tied. I probe the obstruction in my mouth with my tongue; it has to be the dishrag. The ether has mostly evaporated, but I'm still fuzzy enough not to feel panic. My whereabouts seep into my brain in a cool, matter-of-fact way.

I take a deep breath through my nose. The cold air slices my sinuses. The pain helps me focus. I've been trained to escape from ropes. I just need a few minutes to get my strength back.

I don't get them. A large door rumbles open; an icy wind hits me a few seconds later. Pinpoints of light appear in the darkness. Thirteen shadows advance toward me, carrying candles. They're chanting, a babbled mix of Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. The men are all anonymous beneath their hoods, but as they reach the pentacle my eyes spot a familiar figure. The thirteenth man doesn't carry a candle. He's carrying Westcott's dog. Little Hercules is silenced with a muzzle of twine. His legs are also bound. The dog shivers, helpless, as the thirteenth man places him in the center of the star.

Ten of the men take positions around the star, five standing at the outer tips, five standing at the junctions where the lines cross. They kneel prayerfully, their foreheads to the ground, arms outstretched toward the Chihuahua.

The dog carrier, the procession leader, and the man behind him all approach me. I can see their mouths and chins beneath the shadows of the hoods, and recognize two of the cultists. It's no great surprise that the leader is Westcott. He draws a long, gleaming knife from his belt. Patterson stands next to him. He's carrying a heavy, leather-bound book with iron hinges. The third man pulls a silver bowl from the folds of his robe. My heart seizes as he looks up at me.

Skater.

Patterson opens the book and begins to read. The words of the Gibbering Codex are a long string of nonsense, random syllables, grunts, and clicks. This is going to be a very stupid way to die. Yet, fear of impending death isn't the worst thing going on in my head. The worst thing is feeling like a complete idiot. I thought Skater liked me. He's been playing me all along and I fell for it.

I can't believe I shaved my legs for him.

Then Westcott stabs me.

The blade slides in just beneath my belly button, digging deep as he draws a long, curved line up toward my ribs. Pain jangles along my spine; sweat erupts from every pore. I arch my back, banging my head against the girder. Despite the gag in my mouth, I scream. It comes out as a low, long groan.

Unable to inhale, I go limp, my head dropping forward. I look down at my blood spilling into the silver bowl. It fills with disturbing speed.

When the bowl overflows, the three men turn and walk toward the dog. I can barely lift my head. White stars spark at the edge of my vision. The roar in my ears drowns out the chanting.

Skater kneels before the Chihuahua. Westcott bows down, untying the dog's twine muzzle. Hercules is too terrified to make a sound as Westcott shoves the dog's mouth into the bowl.

All color drains from the world. I'm staring down a gray tunnel at Hercules, who kicks and wiggles as he drowns in my blood.

The dog swallows.

Then grows. And grows. The three men step back as the twine bindings snap. Hercules is on his back, twitching, as he swells to the size of a Saint Bernard. I raise my head higher, forcing myself to watch. Now he's the size of a horse, rolling over onto his feet. He whines and whimpers. The dog's shoulders bulge as tumors like twin watermelons grow beneath his skin. Eyes open near the back of the tumors, followed by sprouting ears. There's a sickening rip as the bulges split open, revealing mouths. Hercules is now the size of a Brahma bull, with three heads and six eyes that glow red like brimstone.

It's Cerberus.

They've summoned Cerberus.

They've made a terrible, terrible mistake.

Since leaving the monastery, my faith in the monks' teachings has slipped away, nibbled and gnawed at by the modern world until it was easy to believe that my own absurd, impossible history was all a lie.

But if I were only human, I'd be dead by now.

I turn my eyes toward heaven. Father, I pray, silently. I need your strength.

It's not God I'm praying to.

I feel a jolt rush through me, and I'm no longer cold. I'm full of hot lighting, my heart thundering in my ears. The hemp rope tying me to the ceiling snaps like kite string. I fall forward, my feet still tied to the girder. I kick, breaking free, then bite through my gag and spit it out.

Grasping my belly, I rise to my feet. Loops of intestine slip out, suspended in my fingers. I clench my teeth as I push my guts back inside.

Cerberus is the size of an elephant. No one is looking at me. Westcott raises his hands and informs hell's guard dog that he's been summoned to serve and obey. He holds up a photo of his ex-wife.

"Your first mission is to find this woman and kill her."

Cerberus responds by nosing forward, opening the jaws of his left head, and crushing Westcott's skull like an egg. For a half second, the other twelve men fall silent, staring as Westcott's body wobbles, then topples backward.

Everyone runs. Most make it to the door, but not Patterson, and not Skater. I feel what must be heartache as the big dog gulps down the only boy who ever kissed me. I'd hoped to feel the stubble of his face again, when I pummeled him to within an inch of life.

Cerberus jumps out of his summoning circle. I've got to send him back. The three-headed hound dog isn't stationed at the gates of hell to keep people out. He's there to keep the damned in. Once they realize he's gone, the world will be overrun with vengeful, insane spirits. Happy Halloween.

I spin around and place my hand on the girder. I whisper a prayer that has appeared in my head as if by divine inspiration and the girder melts like a candle. Cold liquid iron flows down my arm and across my torso. I pull my hand away as the metal covers my belly and stiffens. At least I won't be tripping over my own entrails.

As the iron flows over my legs, I flex my right hand, summoning steel into it, forging a sword by sheer willpower. I bring the fresh iron to my lips and kiss the blade. The fever heat in my blood jumps into the metal; with a WHOOSH it bursts into white flame.

I jerk my head forward and the faceplate of my just-formed helmet drops into place with a satisfying clang. With a rapid prayer of thanks to my angel dad, I run forward, brandishing my sword, and unleashing a battle cry as Cerberus hunches down to slip out the open doorway.

He spins around, bloody spittle foaming in his jaws, snarling as he sees me. He lunges, faster than my eyes can track. One second, he's ten yard away, the next, he's got a set of jaws clamped around my left thigh and his middle mouth chewing on my ribs. His third jaw goes for my wrist, to make me drop the angel blade, but now it's time to surprise him with my own speed. His jaws snap down on the foundry-hot steel of my sword and all three mouths turn loose as he jerks away, yelping.

"Bad dog!" I shout, jamming the gauntleted fingers of my left hand into the nostrils of his middle head as deep as they will go. I hook my fingers up and he howls, shaking his heads violently. I stand firm as Gibraltar, clamped down on his nose, immune to his fury.

With angel blood powering my muscles, I drag him back toward the pentacle. I'm not sure what I'll do when I get him there. If I kill him, it might leave hell wide open. The left head keeps snapping at me, but the right head hangs back, its mouth still smoking from its flaming-sword snack. My armor resists the worst of the left head's assault, but his hell-dog slobber feels like battery acid as it seeps through the joints.

I hum "Hound Dog," as I drag him over the smooth concrete floor, his claws leaving long scratch marks.

I get Cerberus back in the middle of the pentagram at the part of the song where the dog is scolded for his failures as a rabbit-catcher. I slap the right head across the nose with the flat of my blade, then twist my fingers deep in the middle head's nostrils. The left head yowls.

"Listen up," I say, going for the direct approach. "I could try all night to guess the magic words that send you back. Or, I can just keep hurting you until you've decided you've had enough. In hell, you get to hurt people. Here, I get to hurt you. This should be an easy choice."

The dog stops struggling, his six eyes glowering as he studies me. He sighs. A shudder ripples along his body.

I blink.

When my eyes open I'm sure that he's a little smaller. Five seconds later, there's no question that he's smaller still. Before I know it he's no bigger than a German Shepherd. Waves of dark energy swirl around me, toilet bowl fashion, as the hell-spirit departs the dog flesh and heads back home.

I'm left with a dazed, bloody-nosed Chihuahua hanging from my fingertips. He whines pitifully, his whole body limp, as I pull him off.

My armor is suddenly very heavy. I drop to my knees as my sword sputters, then goes black, coated with ash. Once again energy spins around me, a bright whirlwind of fire.

A dark-haired angel floats above me, his arms spread wide as the flame flows back into his chest, leaving a heart-shaped glow on his breast.

My vision is blotted by black spots as the light fades, but I swear the angel winks at me as he turns his thumb up in a gesture of approval. He grins and says, "Not bad, but a better song would have been 'Return to Sender.'"

"Noted," I say, barely able to hold my head up. My vision blurs and the angel is gone. The only thing above me is a tin roof. I cradle the dog to my breast as I stagger back to my feet, stumbling toward the open door. I need fresh air.

There's a splash near my feet as I make it outside. I look down. I'm standing in blood. I barely push my faceplate up before I start to vomit. As Sherry might say, I "puke my guts out." Only, literally. By the time I'm done, my intestines have slipped out of my wound and are wedged between my skin and breast plate. I hope that girder was sterile.

I finally gather my wits enough to wonder about the source of the blood. It's not all mine, is it? I look around and find a dead cultist a yard away. Nine other bodies lie scattered across the weed-covered parking lot.

There's a single car, headlights blazing, the motor idling. I inch toward it, spotting the dark-robed figure silhouetted beyond the lights, pistol in hand.

I stagger past the headlights. No longer blinded, I see who I thought I'd see.

Brother Anthony takes the Chihuahua from my rubbery arms.

"This was the vessel?" he asks, in a business-like tone.

I nod.

"We'll have Brother Berthold examine him. Perhaps his life can be spared."

"You can't tell because of the armor, but I'm bleeding to death," I whisper.

He places an arm around me and helps me into the car. It's a big Mercedes. Even in my armor, the back seat is roomy. I drape a steel clad forearm across my eyes as I collapse onto the soft leather.

"We're fortunate that it's Halloween," says Brother Anthony. "It may be the only night a monk can bring an armor clad woman to an emergency room without arousing undue curiosity."

"Way to see the silver lining," I say, or try to say; I have no idea if he understands my mumbles.

"Despite your injuries, this night has been a victory. We defeated the Golden Veil, and you dispatched Cerberus swiftly enough to avoid a large-scale escape. After the doctors mend you, you can recuperate at the monastery while we research any evil spirits that may have slipped loose."

I move my arm and open my eyes. I can see the stars pass overhead through the back window of the car. I feel a little stronger now that I'm on my back. What blood I have left is finding an easier path to my brain. I don't feel great, but I might be able to fight off slipping into a coma for another five minutes.

"I'm not going back to the monastery," I whisper.

He's quiet.

"I want to stay in school. I can heal in my dorm room."

"There's no point in staying in this school. Your studies have taken you far past the level of anything the classes here have to offer."

"The stuff I need to learn isn't in books. I don't know how to talk to people. I don't know how to judge who to trust."

"You need only trust us."

"You said if a razor touched my skin, I'd lose my strength, like Sampson. I shaved my legs and I still yanked Cerberus around like a puppy."

There's a strange sound from the front seat.

"Are you grinding your teeth?"

"The biblical texts do not address whether Sampson shaved his legs," Brother Anthony admits.

I laugh, but quickly stop as my innards slosh.

"I drank coffee this week. I even tried a beer."

I can see the side of his head. The vein in his temple is bulging.

"Maybe it's not prayer and fasting that gives me my powers. Maybe they're just part of me. My father is an angel who thinks that earth has rewards that heaven can't offer. Perhaps wanting to have fun is just part of who I am."

"These are dangerous thoughts."

I close my eyes. Everything fun is dangerous. Perhaps I'm on a path angels should fear to travel, treading down to the end of Lonely Street, and straight on through the Heartbreak Hotel, out the back door, to whatever lies beyond. The angel spark that dwells within me won't be nurtured by prayer and meditation in some quiet, hidden valley. If I ever hope to blow the spark into a flame, I'll need the whirlwind of the wide, wild world.

Even an angel needs a little Elvis in her soul.


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